(US)"Smithsonian Is No Safe Haven for Exhibit on Arctic Wildlife Refuge"

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

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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