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Leon Kaye headshot

Activists Highlight Oil Company Influence of Houston Science Museum

By Leon Kaye

As the chorus for divestment from the energy industry becomes louder, activists aim to cut the cords between energy companies and society. One tactic has been to protest the ties between art, museums and energy companies. The Tate Gallery in London, for example, was forced to disclose the amount of sponsorship received from the energy giant BP last year. Energy companies maintain their sponsorship of the art and science institutions are nothing more than a way in which to show corporate citizenship, as in the tradition of iconic American industrialists such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan and Mellon. Opponents of this trend make the point that large companies often overstep their bounds and give money with onerous strings attached.

Now the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), one of the most visited museums in the U.S., finds itself coming under scrutiny. A coalition of non-profits is suggesting that the HMNS is front for oil and gas companies. The instigator is The Natural History Museum, a mobile exhibition that seeks to “highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature.” Insisting that corporate money has perverted the pursuit of science, the organization that runs The Natural History Museum accuses corporations of funding museums and exhibitions with the ulterior motive to enhance their agenda.

Hence this group, which includes the journalist Naomi Klein and co-founder of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (a 1985 Nobel Peace Prize Winner), Eric Chivian, is in their view, trying to take science back for all of society, not just for the well-funded few. The museum is a project of Not an Alternative, a coalition in New York that integrates, art, activism and education, with past exhibitions showcased in New York, London, Detroit and Mexico City.

Joining them is T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services), a community activist group that works to create more sustainable communities in the Lone Star State. In addition, Project Row Houses (PRH), an arts organization based in one of Houston’s oldest African-American neighborhoods, will host these exhibits until the early summer.

In Houston, these groups are focused on highlighting what they describe as the “symbiotic relationship” between the HMNS and its corporate funders. The exhibition, which will be located at PRH until June 19, says it will “excavate” some of the displays and narratives that are shown at the HMNS, while highlighting the stories of the poorer minority neighborhoods that are along what is often described as the highly polluted Houston Ship Channel. The region has been cited by studies, including one at the University of Texas that is no longer posted (but highly cited), that have suggested children living near the Channel’s refineries are at high risk of illnesses including leukemia.

To that end, beginning tomorrow, The Natural History and Museum and T.E.J.A.S will organize three “toxic tours” the first Saturday of April, May and June. The two and half hour tours will work with a local university to take air quality tests within the Channel area, and will also tour around the petrochemical plants and refineries in East Houston. The work of these organizations show that while many of us are optimistic about the future of clean energy technologies and their role in minimizing the roll of fossil fuels, environmental justice in the poorest American neighborhoods is still vastly overlooked.


Image credit: Wiki Commons (Agsftw)

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye