Smithsonian: Rejecting Money, OK. But Reality?

By November 19, 2007Culture and Entertainment, Energy

Make this Smithsonian Monday …

Arriving back in Washington Saturday morning after a jaunt to Houston and Corpus Christi, courtesy the American Petroleum Institute, we encountered this disheartening news on the front page of The Washington Post:

The American Petroleum Institute yesterday rescinded its offer to give the Smithsonian $5 million for a major exhibit hall and Web site on the world’s oceans, ending a controversy destined for the institution’s Board of Regents meeting on Monday.

The decision is a setback for Cristian Samper, the acting secretary of the Smithsonian, who has said the ocean exhibition is “very close to my heart.” Samper approved the contribution in his current role and helped develop the Ocean Hall when he was director of the National Museum of Natural History.

Two leading members of the Board of Regents, one of them a U.S. senator [Pat Leahy], indicated they would oppose accepting the gift. They worried that oil-and-gas money could taint the “Ocean Initiative” showcase. The regents, who must approve major donations, were expected to review the matter on Monday.

Disheartening is not the API’s withdrawing the offer. Disheartening is the blinkered elitism by those “environmentally sensitive” regents that led to API’s decision. Cristian Samper, the acting secretary of the Smithsonian, said he was disappointed, but what could he expect?

The controversy worked out this way, at least the way we see it:

API: We think the Ocean Initiative is an exciting project, one we’d like to support with a $5 million contribution. After all, the oil and gas industry has a long, close involvement with the ocean, a source of much of our nation’s energy and economic vitality. And we have a good environmental story to tell. If we get a little good PR in the process, all the better.

Smithsonian regents: Oooh. Oil. How scummy. They pollute. Bad. Their money will taint the project. No.

API: Really, now? Well, if we’re so offensive to your sensibilities, we’ll just withdraw the $5 million. Good luck.

Smithsonian regents: What? Oh. Oh. Oh. How disappointing.

It’s not fair to tar all the regents with the same brush. The most prominent objector was Board of Regents Executive Committee Chairman Roger W. Sant, who earlier told the Post: “I want to be sure that the sponsor’s behavior is consistent with the message we’re trying to deliver.”

What is that message? That we should not generate energy from ocean resources? That any risk of environmental damage is too much, even if the energy industry takes extraordinary measures to prevent it? That the oil and gas industry is simply a bad actor, that must never be allowed to enter the marketplace of ideas or contribute to our society?

According to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers study, the oil and natural gas industry was responsible for nearly 6 million direct and indirect jobs in 2004, or 3.5 million of the nation’s total. The associated labor income was estimated to be $299 billion, or almost 4 percent of the national total.

We wager than in their travels to visit a Smithsonian exhibit, most of these six million people drive or fly, using petroleum products along the way. But to Mr. Sant, and by extension, alas, the Smithsonian, these six million people are associated with a sullied, offensive industry. These people, the public, might view the Smithsonian as having its own consistent message: You’re not welcome. Go visit some other museum.

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