Reader Letters

Survival of the Financed

Dear Rosecrans and Andrew,

This Wapshott article in the Telegraph, which you linked to in Wednesday’s Headlines, is spreading like wildfire, and I want to help you understand it because I see that you’ve (apparently) fallen for its very spurious premise. There is no evidence here or elsewhere that the funding structure for the Darwin exhibit was the result of corporate sponsors being “scared off.” No one quoted in the article (is named or) is in a position to know what strategy the American Museum of Natural History development department took to fund the exhibition. Corporations may or may not have been approached. If any were approached and declined to participate, it may in fact be because of the political delicacy around evolution education right now, or it may simply because their funds were already committed elsewhere or because the exhibition doesn’t fit their guidelines. There aren’t a lot of corporations funding basic biology education, I can tell you that from experience.

Exhibition funding is not a straightforward matter of corporate sponsorships, like the Superbowl. I don’t know the whole history of the Darwin exhibition, but it’s entirely possible that its lead financier, the Howard Phipps Foundation, which is a big-time supporter of biology research and education, hatched the idea to begin with, and committed to major support from the beginning, thereby precluding the need for a corporate sponsor. And maybe the AMNH senior management, the exhibition curator, or the development department decided that a corporate sponsor could lead to a watered-down show (see also: Guggenheim). Foundations are great sources for in-depth, challenging programs without a lot of flash. If I were fundraising for this exhibition, I myself would have gone to foundations and individual donors first.

Nicholas Wapshott has been great in shedding light on the anti-evolution frenzy that’s happening all around the U.S. right now, but he obviously doesn’t understand the way the nonprofit sector and museums in particular function. I have a suspicion that the angle he took with this article (corporate sponsors wary of controversy) was an editor’s intervention. The real story here is that the AMNH has courageously decided to confront an important topic—a justice issue, really, when you think about how are kids are getting shortchanged in their science classes—at a time when it seems most likely to have explosive results.

Just had to get that off my chest. Thanks for listening.


K. Emerson Beyer
New York City

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