Smithsonian for Sale?

In 1991, the American Chemical Society donated $5.3 million for the creation of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution titled "Science in American Life," The Smithsonian curator, Arthur Mollela, made the mistake of including in the exhibit scientists such as Rachel Carson. While extolling the virtues of science and technology, Mollela also vividly portrayed its downside risks.
In response, the American Chemical Society went ballistic. According to one press report, the Society now actively discourages chemical companies from donating to the Smithsonian.
Last month, the oil companies threw a party at the Smithsonian Institution to celebrate an opening of a new exhibit titled "Oil From the Arctic: Building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline."
It is clear from the pipeline exhibit that I. Michael Heyman, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, learned the lesson of the "Science in American Life" episode -- don't bite the corporate hand that feeds you.
The pipeline exhibit was "made possible" by a $300,000 grant from Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., the consortium of ARCO, British Petroleum and Exxon that built the pipeline.
The lavish opening party was also paid for by Alyeska, but Valeska Hilbig, a spokesperson for the Museum, said that the amount the company paid for the party was "proprietary information" and could not be made public.
Ruth Sexton, of the Museum's Office of Fund Development, confirmed that it was not unusual for a corporation to fund an exhibit. "Just walk around our museum and you will see exhibits sponsored by DuPont, Pepsi Cola, the American Chemical Society," Sexton said. "But we don't just hand out lists of donors."
The new exhibit features a 21-foot section of the pipeline which is supplemented by stories from pipeline workers and Alaska natives, art photographs, maps and a 30-foot timeline.
The timeline includes a short mention of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. But there are no pictures documenting the spill or its effects.
There is no mention that in October 1991, Exxon pled guilty to environmental crimes in connection with the spill and was required to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to the government and payments to those victimized by its crime.
There was no mention of the ongoing corporate harassment of Alyeska whistleblowers concerned about the safety of the pipeline.
In fact, shortly before flying to Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian shindig, Alyeska president Bob Malone was forced to issue a public apology to Patrick Higgins, an Alyeska in-house monitor of whistleblower complaints, whose computers files were wrongfully downloaded by the company lawyers.
Alyeska funded the exhibit "in an attempt to advance its own political agenda," as Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League put it.
"They want the American people to believe they can be trusted to drill in fragile wilderness areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)," Kolton said. "But no matter how much they spend on glitzy public relations campaigns, Alyeska cannot cover up 20 years of environmental degradation."
Rick Steiner, a professor at the University of Alaska, says that the exhibit also ignores the bigger picture -- the oil from Prudhoe Bay is "simply not needed."
Outside the exhibit hall, Jeffrey Stine, Curator of Engineering and Environmental History at the Museum, was having none of the criticism. "I'm not a shill for anyone," Stine said.
"If it weren't for Alyeska's grant, this project wouldn't exist," Stine said. "But the company had no control over the exhibit."
Bob Malone, the CEO of Alyeska, told the assembled throng on opening night that the company was "thrilled to share with the American people the story of the tremendous accomplishment of building this important pipeline under such extremely difficult conditions."
In an interview afterward, Malone denied that Alyeska's funding of the exhibit was part of a public relations ploy to push for drilling in ANWR.
When asked why the exhibit downplayed the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the ongoing harassment of whistleblowers, curator Stine explained that the exhibit "is about the pipeline itself." While saying that he considered the ongoing whistleblower harassment "horrific," Stine said he "couldn't include everything."
As the Alyeska pipeline exhibit makes clear, Heyman is clearly on his way to turning the Smithsonian into an Epcot Center on the Potomac. Whether he can pull it off without being publicly chastised for selling the soul of the institution to Corporate America is another question.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.
Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor.