Let the countdown begin: it’s 3 days to the grand opening of the new California Academy of Sciences museum, a state of the art spectacle of architecture and sustainability. It’s truly an impressive achievement. Visit the website and you’ll see for yourself: a 2.5 acre “living roof” that’s home to 1.7 million native plants; insulation made from recycled denim; and a solar canopy containing 60,000 voltaic photo cells. These are just a few highlights. The main exhibit, “Altered State: Climate Change in California,” takes up the majority of the museum’s main floor and includes numerous interactive displays, such as the bones of both an endangered blue whale and a T-Rex.
As reported by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, journalists who were given a sneak peak of the tour were informed by Carol Tang, director of visitor interpretive programs, that the economy and entire way of life in California “will all be affected by climate change,” adding, “the T. rex reminds us that mass extinctions have happened and we’re in a mass extinction right now.”
But alas, not is all well in the world of popular science education. In the build-up to the event, the Academy has been trumpeting the architectural and scientific achievements of the new building and feature exhibits. For environmentalists, however, it’s a program underwritten by a patron with questionable intentions. It seems that “when visitors show up for the opening weekend’s festivities, they’ll be told they have Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to thank for the museum’s opening, which includes free admission on the first day.” According to the media release posted on the utility’s website, “[e]mpowering Californians with the tools and information to reduce their impact on climate change is critical to protecting California’s natural heritage. We’re honored by the opportunity to support the California Academy of Sciences as they take on the important mission of inspiring future leaders to create a more sustainable California.” Sounds like an act of nobility and corporate virtue. The news item advises that PG&E invested $1.5 million for the rights to co-sponsor, benefiting in return with post plenty of corporate signage, prominent mention in academy press releases, subtle plugs to journalists by museum staffers, and a spot on the five-person panel of academy leaders that addressed the assembled scribes at the pre-opening media tour.
These kinds of public-private partnerships in the arts are not new, as the cultural historian Neil Harris argues in his 1990 book Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America. Harris claims “the search for an enlightened American art patronage is as old as the republic itself,” and shows several instances where art and corporate power intersect. He also has a fascinating chapter on the link between museums and issue advocacy, which would no doubt fit in relation to the global warming education initiative involved here. The point is that big business has long lined up behind the arts and for various reasons — some of them noble and benevolent, and others quite deliberately self-serving. For the activist group Green Guerillas Against Greenwashing, PG&E falls squarely into the latter category. Noting the utility company’s ongoing efforts to block current legislation (The Clean Energy Act) and its legacy of lobbying against high environmental standards for utilities companies, the group finds the organization’s sudden support for public education about global warming a little too hot to handle. For PG&E and proponents of corporate social responsibility, the utility company’s sponsorship of this initiative demonstrates not an attempt to deceive or manipulate, but to link science and climate change education and to show that there are times when industry can mobilize its significant capital advantages to demonstrate environmental leadership.