A premier science museum in North Carolina has sparked some controversy by refusing to show an hourlong film about climate change and rising sea levels. “The suppression of information is not in in the spirit of what a museum ought to do,” says Charles “Pete” Peterson, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City.
But museum officials deny any attempt to avoid the topic. “I have a track record of dealing with these issues head on,” says Emlyn Koster, who directs the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
The museum may be in a bit of a delicate position. It is part of a state agency, the North CarolinaDepartment of Environment and Natural Resources. The state government has been perceived as hostile to action on climate change; last year, the legislature passed a bill forbidding the state coastal commission from defining rates of sea-level rise for regulation before 2016. Although Koster is a state employee who is exempt from some civil service protections and serves at the pleasure of Governor Pat McCrory (R), he stresses his independence. “At no time have I been told what to do or what to think.”
In October, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, an advocacy organization, asked that the Museum of Natural Sciences show the film Shored Up in January as part of its weekly Science Café events. The hourlong movie looks at the impact of sea-level rise in New Jersey and North Carolina, as well as various political responses to dealing with the threat. After debuting at a film festival in New Jersey in May, the documentary has been screened dozens of times around the country.
Director Ben Kalina says he hoped that an event at the museum would spark dialogue, especially because the museum is across the street from the state Capitol. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to invite people from state legislature, people working on issues in the state, and the public to discuss these issues.” Kalina says he made a balanced film that is not a polemic, although it does contain a scene from The Colbert Report, in which the comedian mocks North Carolina politicians for the bill. “I’m sure some people wouldn’t appreciate that,” he admits.
Michael Orbach, a social scientist at Duke University’s Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina, is familiar with the film. He agrees it isn’t polemical. He also agrees that the excerpts from The Colbert Report are embarrassing and might color perceptions of Kalina. “There are people who would view this guy and this film as the other side” of a political battle, he says.
Several museums have already shown the movie, including the Miami Science Museum and the North Carolina Aquarium in Fort Fisher, which is also part of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. But on 13 November, Koster’s program committee recommended that the film not be shown by itself, but perhaps at a later date as part of a larger program. They asked for Koster’s opinion and he also gave a thumbs-down. The decision was first reported 15 November by a Raleigh newspaper, INDY Week.
The problem, Koster says, is that the Science Café venue was not the right format for a complicated and controversial topic, because events are only an hour long and the Café only has small screens. In a statement sent to museum staff on Monday, Koster wrote: “the most constructive role for this Museum is to be an engaging venue with multiple resources and views. It would be a disservice to the people of North Carolina who generously funded the construction of the Museum, and who are joined by other visitors from all other US states and numerous other countries, if we were to maintain that showing one organization’s film constituted a comprehensive approach to an issue as significant and complex as sea level science.”
Kalina says he’s hopeful the museum will reconsider. In an e-mail, he added, “My response to the Director's assertion about the science of climate change being complex and that the film may not be the way they want to address the issue would also be this: I agree completely that the science is complex and I think that the film reflects that complexity as well as the enormous challenges we face as individuals and society to grapple with these issues. This is precisely why public institutions like the Museum have such a critical role to play and are so uniquely positioned to communicate these issues to the public. Judging by the strongly positive response I've had from the many climatologists, geologists and geomorphologists who have seen it the science in the film is sound, and the portrait of miscommunication between scientists and the politicians in North Carolina is all too familiar. “
Koster says he could envision Shored Up as part of a larger offering, although there are no immediate plans to do that. In addition, the museum already extensively covers climate change and sea-level rise in its permanent exhibits, he says. The Science Café has addressed climate change in its Café programs as well. “This is by no means a new issue,” Koster says.
“I take him at his word when he says they have a robust way of treating these issues,” Orbach says of Koster’s decision, but he wonders how and when the museum will tackle the subject in a comprehensive way.