Earth Day, the letter, and David Koch: Museum governance and reputation in the 21st century

Today is Earth Day, a day that seems to become more vital and important each year as our planet continues to warm.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last month was the hottest March ever recorded, and the first three months of 2015 were the hottest start to any year on record.


Today is a good time to remind the museum field about the Open Letter to Museums from Members of the Scientific Community, which was released about a month ago.

The letter reminds museums of their ethical mandate to use collections and knowledge to serve the public interest.  It voices concerns that special interests opposed to the health and well-being of our environment are trying to influence the information museums provide to the public.

The letter calls for museums to cut all ties with fossil fuel industries and funders who deny climate change, such as David Koch.  Koch is a head of Koch Industries, which includes fossil fuel businesses.  Koch is also one of this country’s most significant philanthropists, giving his financial support to many museums and serving on the boards of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, and an emeritus trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He is also a climate change denier.

Elizabeth Merritt of the Center for the Future of Museums wrote a good blog post in response to the open letter.  Merritt says that the current standards for museums draw lines between those who fund museums and those who create programs and exhibitions, and between the governing board and the staff.  She says these standards can guide museums in ethical situations such as this.  She’s right, but these standards only mean something as long as museums enforce them.

We live in a world where special interests seek influence, from how things are covered in the media to the outcome of public elections.  On the latter, Koch emerges again, as he and others look to spend almost $900 million on the 2016 elections.  The public knows less about museum standards than they do about Koch seeking influence.  In this way, his board membership becomes a public perception problem for the museums he’s associated with.

Merritt’s blog quotes Chris Norris, past president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.  Norris says that it’s better to have people with contrary views on the board of the museum rather than to exclude them and the museum appear impartial.

I disagree.  I believe there are issues that are so important that we can no longer allow those who disagree or deny that there is a problem to have a position of influence.  Climate change is one of these issues.

This isn’t a perfect analogy, but can you imagine what the reaction would be if the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had a board member who funded groups that denied the Holocaust?

In Museum Administration: An Introduction, Hugh Genoways and Lynne Ireland (2003) write about corporate sponsorships in museums:  “The museum must remember that as the corporation benefits from the museum’s reputation, so the reputation of the corporation, for good or bad, will reflect on the museum” (p. 285).

Today, with museums under intense public scrutiny, the reputation of anyone or anything associated with a museum will reflect on the museum, including and especially board members.

Twenty-first century museums need to consider board members’ impact on the museum’s reputation, especially in issues where the public will not trust or tolerate a board member who disagrees with the information provided by the museum.


Genoways, H. & Ireland, L. (2003). Museum administration: An introduction. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

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