Gala Honoree Causes Concern at American Museum of Natural History

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The American Museum of Natural History says it is exploring its options after discovering that the honoree at a gala to which it rented space next month will be President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, whose environmental policies have come under fire.

In statements Thursday and Friday, the museum responded to criticism that an institution dedicated to nature and science would serve as a podium to honor someone who has proposed opening up more of the Amazon rain forest to mining and agribusiness.

The event is an annual gala honoring a Person of the Year Award organized by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit that promotes business and cultural ties between the United States and Brazil.

The museum said it had agreed to book the event this year before it learned who the nominee would be, and its remarks suggested it might be considering whether there is any way to back out of hosting the engagement.

“The external, private event at which the current President of Brazil is to be honored was booked at the Museum before the honoree was secured,” the museum said in a tweet. “We are deeply concerned, and we are exploring our options.”

In a statement Friday, the museum said the event “does not in any way reflect the Museum’s position that there is an urgent need to conserve the Amazon Rainforest, which has such profound implications for biological diversity, indigenous communities, climate change, and the future health of our planet.”

The outcry over the event comes at a time of increasing sensitivities about what sort of oversight museums should demonstrate in regard to the people who serve on their boards, give them money or, as in this case, rent their space.

Traditionally, museums have argued that they do not apply ideological litmus tests to their donors or trustees, a position of principle, but also one that enabled often cash-challenged nonprofit institutions to accept financing from the widest spectrum of individuals.

The natural history museum cited the principle a few years ago in defending its decision to offer a board seat to Rebekah Mercer, who is an influential donor to the museum and also to groups that deny climate change.

Some museums, however, have recently taken a different stance, in several cases, for example, saying they were reconsidering their connections to the Sackler family over the ties of some family members to the opioid crisis. And in New York, there have been protests at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where a vice chairman on its board, Warren Kanders, runs a company that manufactures tear gas that was used to repel migrants trying to cross into the United States from Mexico.

The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce could not be reached for comment. Michael R. Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, was one of the chamber’s honorees last year, and Bill Clinton has been an honoree in the past.

The criticism toward this year’s honoree built quickly. Mayor Bill de Blasio entered the debate Friday, telling WNYC radio that he found the event at an institution that accepts city funding “really troubling.”

“If you’re talking about a publicly supported institution and you’re talking about someone who’s doing something tangibly destructive, I’m uncomfortable with it, and I would certainly urge the museum not to allow him to be hosted there,” he said.

Beka Economopoulos, who is the director of a traveling museum, said some staff members at the natural history museum had been organizing in opposition to the event involving President Bolsonaro.

“What he stands for is antithetical to what the museum stands for,” she said. “When the museum offers its name and its space to this individual, it undermines the trust the public puts in this museum and in science itself.”

Officials at the museum seemed to recognize that the gala has become an issue that needed to be addressed with their staff. A letter to the staff was sent out on Thursday night from Michael Novacek, senior vice president and provost, and Daniel Scheiner, vice president for human resources, saying they shared “a deep concern at the current plans.”

A spokeswoman for the museum said she could not speculate on what options the institution was exploring for a gala that is just a month away. “That is precisely the review that is going on now,” said the spokeswoman, Anne Canty.

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