Activists protest Rebekah Mercer’s board seat at the American Natural History Museum.
Activists protest Rebekah Mercer’s board seat at the American Natural History Museum.
Photo: Ivy Arce (Revolting Lesbians)

Billionaire Rebekah Mercer, who with her father Robert Mercer has poured millions of dollars into climate-denying organizations, candidates, and media, is off the board of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

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The New York museum has not publicly said why Mercer no longer has a board seat. In an email to Earther, the AMNH merely said that “Ms. Mercer’s term expired in December.” The museum’s governance policy limits each trustee’s terms to three terms of three years each. Having served two terms since 2013, Mercer would have been eligible for re-election for a third, but the museum has yet to clarify why her seat hasn’t been renewed.

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But we do know that over the past several years, climate scientists, the museum’s tenured curators, and environmental activists have all demanded the museum cut ties with the billionaire due to her investments in right-wing causes. Those groups have specifically called out her funding of anti-science propagandists or, as the group of AMNH scientists called them, the “ringleaders of climate denial.”

Whatever the reason for the discontinued relationship, this is good: The billionaires who fund climate denial absolutely shouldn’t be on museum boards. A board of trustees is supposed to make sure an institution serves the best interests of its stakeholders. In the museum’s case, that’s its visitors. Mercer can’t be trusted to do that, because by propping up the fossil fuel industry, she’s directly worked against the interests not just of AMNH visitors but all of humanity.

Recently, institutions in every sector from banking to fashion have taken steps to signal interest in climate action. AMNH has taken some steps, too. In 2018, it unveiled an updated climate change exhibit and also hired marine geochemistry researcher Nathalie Goodkin, who focuses on climate impacts to coral, as a curator. But if the museum really wants to show it’s taking the climate crisis seriously, there’s a few more important steps it should be taking.

For one, AMNH should also divest from fossil fuel projects. It got part of the way there in 2016, when in response to public pressure from environmental organizations such as 350.org and Divest Invest, it reduced its holdings in fossil fuel interests from 4 percent to 2 percent of its $650 million endowment. But that calculation did not include the museum’s fossil fuel investment through the international private equity firm Denham Capital, which NBC News found pledged $5 million to the museum. Denham has invested in fossil-based energy projects, including fracking for shale oil in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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The museum should also stop taking money that’s tainted by the fossil fuel industry and climate denial. AMNH’s most recent annual report shows that together, Rebekah Mercer, her father Robert, and her sister Jennifer donated between $125,000 and $248,000 to the museum in 2018. And according to DeSmog, the Mercer Family Foundation donated $1.6 million to the museum between 2012 and 2017. Yet they were pumping money into the Heartland Institute, Breitbart, the Trump campaign, all of which push forward climate denial.

That dissonance doesn’t just look back for the museum. Accepting funding from people like the Mercers or fossil fuel interests can affect what goes into a museum’s exhibits. For instance, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum opened a dinosaur exhibit last year funded by and named after the late ghoul David Koch, who made his billions in part through the petrochemical industry. Even though Koch had already stepped down from the museum’s board in apparent response to public pressure, the Koch exhibit—surprise, surprise—included nothing about the need to stop burning fossil fuels. AMNH has never hosted an exhibit bearing a Mercer’s name, but as Earther reported, their climate change exhibit is conspicuously quiet about solutions.

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Investing in cultural projects also lets those who’ve made fortunes off of genocidal industries get tax write-offs and scrub their public images. But no matter how much the Mercers (or the Kochs, or oil companies themselves) throw at cultural institutions, they can’t offset their tremendous contributions to planetary destruction. That’s why activists are staging massive interventions to demand museums cut ties with them.

I know it won’t be easy for museums to reject funding that’s tied up in fossil fuel interests. Public art funding in the U.S. has declined by 16 percent over the past 20 years, adjusted for inflation. The government should certainly ramp that up.

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But ultimately, the fossil fuel industry—propped up by the climate deniers that the Mercer Foundation funds—could bring about the end of natural history as we know it. We’ve reached out to AMNH for information about why Rebekah Mercer’s board seat wasn’t renewed and will update this post if we hear back.

Update, February 25, 6:00 p.m.: In an email to Earther, the AMNH said: “It’s not the role of Trustees or donors to make decisions about scientific and educational content produced by the Museum. At the American Museum of Natural History, those decisions are made by scientists and educators.” They also said that, “today, the Museum holds no direct investments in fossil fuels. We have decreased our level of indirect investment from less than 2% in 2016 to approximately 1% today.”

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Staff writer, Earther

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