Political winds buffet exhibit on ANWR

Some suspect Senate debate pushed exhibit into Smithsonian basement

Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2003

WASHINGTON - The Smithsonian's decision to shift an exhibition of photos of wildlife in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to a less prominent location has prompted a senator and the photographer to question the museum's motives.

The work of the photographer, Subhankar Banerjee, has been used by opponents of oil exploration in the refuge.

The show opens Friday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Two years ago, when the exhibit was conceived, it was to be displayed on the museum's lower level off Baird Auditorium. But last fall, the museum assigned Banerjee's show to a space off the main rotunda behind a show of botanical art on the museum's main floor. Then in March, the display of 48 photographs was shifted back to the area downstairs. That space has been used for photography exhibitions in the past and is behind the escalator in a busy area near the gift shop and cafe.

In a letter to Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, asked why "the exhibit has now been moved to the basement."

Banerjee and Durbin also question alterations in the narrative texts accompanying the photographs.

Banerjee said this week that he was disappointed at the changes and said that he believes the use of a book of his Arctic photos in a debate on the Senate floor might have been one of the reasons.

Last month, Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, displayed the photographs and book as part of her argument against approving oil and gas leasing in the refuge. "After Boxer spoke, I got a call (saying) that it was perceived by the Smithsonian that my work had a political side," Banerjee said.

Randall Kremer, spokesman for the Natural History Museum, said there had been no political pressure to move the photographs.

"Our decision was not based on Sen. Boxer, but it didn't help. We do not want to become involved in a debate over standing legislation. We are a nonpartisan education institution," Kremer said.

Kremer said the decision to move the exhibit back to the original location "is in no way a denigration of the presentation."

In his correspondence with Small, Durbin asked for a detailed explanation of the caption changes. "Text that accompanies images can enhance viewers' experience of exhibits, and can play a vital role in the appeal and impression of museum displays. Why were the narrative texts accompanying the photographs dramatically shortened and otherwise modified?"

Banerjee said "the captions didn't have any political content" and contained information that the casual museum-goer might like to know. Banerjee, 34, a native of Calcutta, spent 14 months in the refuge.

The photographer said the caption for a picture of a buff-breasted sandpiper initially talked about the bird's migration pattern and the risk that could result from habitat destruction. In the Smithsonian show, the caption is a simple line identifying the bird and its location.

In the past, the Smithsonian has edited and otherwise changed captions for various reasons. Kremer said, "There was a lot more detail than would have been used for any exhibition" in the original text. "As with anything, the first text is not always the one that is used. There were quotations about protecting the wilderness."

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