(US)"Smithsonian Is No Safe Haven for Exhibit on Arctic Wildlife
Glickman37 at aol.com
Glickman37 at aol.com
Mon May 5 16:54:10 EDT 2003
Smithsonian Is No Safe Haven for Exhibit on Arctic Wildlife Refuge
By TIMOTHY EGAN
New York Times, May 2, 2003
SEATTLE, May 1 — Things had been going along pretty well in the improbable
life of Subhankar Banerjee, a native of Calcutta, India, who has become
perhaps the leading photographer of one of the coldest and most uninhabited
places on earth, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
A physicist by training who learned photography from fellow shutterbugs in
the off hours at Boeing, Mr. Banerjee found a publisher for a book of his
wildlife photos and was granted an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's
National Museum of Natural History.
Then, in a March 18 floor debate about oil drilling in the refuge, a senator
urged every member to read Mr. Banerjee's book before calling the refuge a
frozen wasteland. Suddenly Mr. Banerjee's work was being promoted on C-Span —
one of the highest honors of his life, he said.
But it has been nothing but trouble ever since. The Smithsonian exhibit will
still open on Friday, though in a much different version than what had been
scheduled. Mr. Banerjee and the book's publisher say members of the
Smithsonian told them that the museum had been pressured to cancel or sharply
revise the exhibit of birds, caribou, musk oxen and other images he had
Smithsonian officials say that no pressure was applied and that the changes
to the show — it was moved from the main floor rotunda to a lower-level room,
and captions were deleted and truncated — are part of the routine,
last-minute preparations for a major exhibition.
Now Mr. Banerjee, who had hoped to discuss the journey of the buff-breasted
sandpiper or what it is like to be stuck in a tent with a wind-chill
temperature of minus 80 degrees, finds himself in a political storm.
"I am naïve about politics," Mr. Banerjee, who is 34 and lives in Seattle,
said. "I still consider this a great honor. I don't understand how all this
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, plans to question
Smithsonian members at a hearing next week and will display some of Mr.
Banerjee's pictures and the deleted captions.
"I want the world to see the caption of the little bird that the Smithsonian
says is too controversial for the public," Mr. Durbin said. "There was
political pressure brought on this exhibition. And it's a sad day when the
Smithsonian, the keeper of our national treasures, is so fearful."
Smithsonian officials are angered and embarrassed at being in the middle of a
Congressional fight over whether to open the refuge to oil and gas drilling.
"We do not engage in advocacy," said Randall Kremer, a museum spokesman. "And
some of the captions bordered on advocacy."
Documents from the Smithsonian give an idea of the changes. For a picture of
the Romanzof Mountains, the original caption quoted Mr. Banerjee as saying,
"The refuge has the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen and is so
remote and untamed that many peaks, valleys and lakes are still without
The new version says, "Unnamed Peak, Romanzof Mountains."
This year the Smithsonian is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the
national wildlife system; the first refuge was created by President Theodore
Roosevelt, on Pelican Island in Florida.
But perhaps no other refuge has received as much attention as the Arctic
domain, which was first protected by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and
enlarged by President Jimmy Carter.
As the centerpiece of his national energy policy, President Bush wants to
open about 1.5 million acres of the refuge's coastal plain to drilling. It
is, supporters of the move say, a potential motherlode of oil.
Led by Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who heads the
Appropriations Committee, drilling supporters have derided the refuge as
largely barren, frozen and lifeless for nearly 10 months a year. Most
pictures of the refuge show the vast caribou herd that migrates to the
coastal plain, or the birds that fly in to feast on the fecund grounds in the
refuge's brief but intense summer.
Mr. Banerjee's breakthrough was to record four seasons of life on the refuge,
particularly around the area where drilling would take place. Mr. Banerjee
used his life savings and cashed out his retirement account to pay for the 14
months he spent in the refuge with a digital camera.
"I was looking for a place where I could live with the bears," he said.
"Northern Alaska seemed perfect. But on the first day I was there, it was the
coldest day of the year so far, and I panicked. My guide said, `It will get
worse. But you will survive.' "Sitting behind snow blinds with an Inupiat
guide, he photographed birds, bears and other creatures going about life in
the depth of winter. The biggest surprise was to find American dippers, tiny
songbirds, feeding on bugs near hot springs when most of the refuge was
engulfed by darkness and chill. When Mr. Banerjee returned from the refuge,
he was still unpublished. He called the Smithsonian and Mountaineers Books, a
nonprofit publisher in Seattle. Both were convinced by the images he brought
back. "Our intention was to produce a poetic testimony to this land," said
Helen Cherullo, publisher of Mountaineers Books.The book, "Seasons of Life
and Land, A Photographic Journey by Subhankar Banerjee," advocates
preservation of the refuge. It features quotations from President Carter, the
writer Peter Matthiessen, and the nature poet and essayist Terry Tempest
Williams. Some of these quotations were to be in the exhibit; they have all
been deleted. Mr. Banerjee's supporters say the changes were clearly a
reaction to the debate in March, when Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of
California, held up some of the images and said people who dismissed the
refuge as white nothingness were wrong. The vote to open the refuge to
drilling failed 52 to 48, prompting Senator Stevens to personalize the
defeat. "People who vote against this today are voting against me," Senator
Stevens said. "I will not forget it."A spokeswoman for Mr. Stevens, said his
office had applied no pressure on the Smithsonian. The senator, she added,
did not even know about the show until last week. Shortly after the vote, the
Smithsonian — which earlier had written to Mr. Banerjee about its excitement
about the project and promoted it on its Web site — sent a letter to the
publisher, saying that the Smithsonian no longer had any connection to Mr.
Banerjee's work, which the publisher thought meant the show might be
canceled. Mr. Banerjee complained to some contributors to the book, including
Mr. Matthiessen, who raised a fuss, prompting Senator Durbin's inquiry. Mr.
Kremer, the museum spokesman, said the letter disassociating the museum from
Mr. Banerjee's work was in error. "There was no pressure whatsoever, either
from the White House or anyone else," he said. "This museum is a sacred trust
of the American people, and we take that responsibility very seriously."
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