Museums Take Different Views on Climate Change

Global warming is a hot-button issue in the nation's capital. Two museums in Washington, D.C. — the Smithsonian and the National Academy of Sciences — are tackling the phenomenon in very different ways. One links it to natural warming cycles in the Arctic, the other to harmful interference by humans.

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Climate change is a touchy subject in Washington, D.C. Advocacy groups and policy makers argue about global warming and what, if anything, the government should do about it.

This weekend, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History opened two new exhibits on global climate change. NPR's Nell Boyce visited the Smithsonian and another museum a few blocks away and she got a sense of the politics of science.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

The Smithsonian's Natural History Museum is famous for things like its giant stuffed elephant in the lobby and the Hope diamond. Just a few steps away from that blue gemstone, you'll find one of the museum's newest exhibits: Arctic, A Friend Acting Strangely.

Bill Fitzhugh is Director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Study Center. He says people who live up north know first hand that in recent years the Arctic really has started acting strangely.

BILL FITZHUGH (Director of Arctic Study Center, Smithsonian Museum): The ice patterns are different. The animals that used to be there yesterday are not there today. Birds are coming earlier, departing later. There's signals all through the north.

BOYCE: The exhibit Fitzhugh helped create is eye catching. It has a big stuffed caribou, manikins wearing arctic gear, and a fake igloo topped with a red flag that asks, Arctic meltdown?

The exhibit focuses on how a rapid warming trend over the last two decades is threatening the Arctic people's way of life. Towns that were once protected by a barrier or sea ice are now battered by storms. Caribou and reindeer are struggling to survive in the soggy snow. And roads are crumbling as solid permafrost softens.

Mr. IGOR KRUPNIK (Anthropologist): This is showing the human face of climate change.

BOYCE: Igor Krupnik is an anthropologist who worked on the exhibit.

Mr. KRUPNIK: What will people take away from this? They will take away the idea that climate change is real to those who are living there. It's not something in the scientist projections. It's not something that may be tested or contested or challenged, a certainty, uncertainty. It's what people feel.

BOYCE: The exhibit does not make a strong statement about what is causing the current warming. It has a wall chart showing natural cycles of arctic warming and freezing going back thousands of years.

Climate scientists say the most recent changes are dramatic. They know that burning coal and gas is pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and that this is warming the planet.

There is a small mention of global warming in the exhibit, but the potential human causes of the melting arctic are not explored. Fitzhugh says that wasn't the point.

Mr. FITZHUGH: It's really not appropriate for the Smithsonian to be broadcasting some sort of a policy message. We really wanted to stay away from that.

BOYCE: Museum Director Christian Samper says the museum is trying to do something different.

Mr. CHRISTIAN SAMPER (Museum Director): We're documenting the change, both current change and past change and trying to show how people are responding to that right now. That is our role as a museum, to present the facts. We do not go into speculations or advocate a particular point of view.

BOYCE: This museum has only had one other exhibit on climate change and that was nine years ago. Given all the controversy around global warming, some staffers of this federally funded museum see the new exhibit as a bold move.

Mr. SAMPER: Some people think it is gutsy and I believe that it's important that the museums address the issues that are important for society. I have no issue as director of the museum to take on issues that are controversial as long as we're providing the right information and presenting it in a way that people can make their own choices.

BOYCE: Alongside the Arctic exhibit is another brand new show. It's called Atmosphere: Change is in the Air.

But it's not intended to explore possible connections between the way that humans are changing the atmosphere and the fact that the Arctic is acting so strangely.

Mr. BARBARA STAUFFER (Smithsonian Exhibit Developer): Well, we didn't make links between the atmosphere visit and the Arctic in that way.

BOYCE: Barbara Stauffer worked on developing the atmosphere displays, which she says were a completely separate effort.

Ms. STAUFFER: This exhibit is not about global warming.

BOYCE: There is one panel that explicitly addresses the fact that burning oil and gas can boost carbon dioxide levels and warm the globe in a way that is quote "potentially harmful to life on Earth."

But visitors will see more about how the Earth's atmosphere has changed constantly since the early formation of the planet. There's a movie about the ozone layer and displays on pollution and a model of a satellite that monitors changes in the air.

A few blocks away from the National Mall, another museum puts global warming at center stage. It's exhibits hammer home the fact that every day people are doing things that are warming the planet.

Ms. ERIKA SHUGART (Deputy Director, Marian Koshland Science Museum): Today we're going to go into our Global Warming: Facts and the Future exhibit and walk through. I'm going to tell you a little bit of background about it.

BOYCE: Erika Shugart is Deputy Director of the Marian Koshland Science Museum, which opened two years ago. It's part of the National Academies, an organization of leading scientists that acts as the government's independent advisor on science policy.

When you walk into the exhibit hall, the first things you see are three dramatic photos of a shrinking glacier in Washington State.

Ms. SHUGART: I think of it as our global warming poster child. We have it in 1928, 1979, and 2003. And what you see is the glacier receding up the mountain.

BOYCE: Underneath in big letters it says, quote, "A growing body of evidence suggests that humans now have a significant impact on climate."

A range of displays show how scientists use things like tree rings and ice cores to track climate changes. A wall chart shows how increases in carbon dioxide go hand in hand with rising global temperatures over the last century.

Another area explores all the possible impacts on sea levels, Arctic wildlife and the weather.

Shugart says the mission of this museum is to take the Academy's somewhat dry policy discussions and make the science come alive for the public.

Ms. SHUGART: Visitors want to know what they can do. They want to know, you know, how their own personal decisions are going to impact things.

BOYCE: So the museum has interactive kiosks that let people look at how everyday choices play a role. Things like planting trees or changing the fuel efficiency of cars or replacing incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent.

Ms. SHUGART: And we want people to realize that they can make decisions that impact the effects of global warming. So they can make choices in their daily lives that are going to have an impact, and that's very important for us, especially for people to appreciate that they can use science to make those decisions and they can make better decisions by understanding the science.

BOYCE: Shugart says because the National Academies focus on science policy, this kind of approach was the natural one for the Marian Koshland Museum to take.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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