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How Politics and Museums Mix

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Executive Director Explains Tuesday’s John McCain Visit


On Tuesday, June 24, 2008, the presidential campaign of Senator John McCain will be at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to hold a panel discussion on the environment. A number of members of our community are startled that the Museum would provide its space for a political event, and some are dismayed at what they see as an abuse of the Museum venue for partisan political purposes. Why would the Museum allow that?

First, let me clarify: the Museum is not hosting or sponsoring the event. Rather, we were approached by the McCain campaign with a request to rent our facility for a panel discussion focused on the environment. Since Fleischmann Auditorium was available for the specified time and date, we agreed. The McCain campaign is paying standard rental rates and is covering all incidental expenses.

However, while the Museum did not organize or sponsor the event, we were nevertheless extremely pleased that Senator McCain and his campaign leaders thought that the Museum of Natural History was the appropriate venue for a discussion of the environment. And here is why.

Natural history” is just an old fashioned term for nature and the environment. For more than 90 years, the Museum of Natural History has been in the business of studying, interpreting, and teaching about the environment. Today, the urgency of our work is greatly increased by the grave predicament we find ourselves in at the beginning of the 21st century.

With well over 6.5 billion people inhabiting our globe, the human population has ballooned to a size where we have literally begun to “eat our planet.” Many of the most important natural resources that used to be there for the taking (water, forests, fish) have declined to critical levels. We have begun to wonder whether we can develop alternative sources of energy quickly enough to substitute for the declining reserves of oil. Global agricultural production is struggling to keep up with the booming demand for food and industrial raw materials. We have polluted our planet’s air, water, and soils to a shocking degree; the teeming diversity of life itself is declining; even the most hardened doubters have begun to accept that global climate change, caused by human action, is an imminent threat to our well being.

It is not just our generation that faces a gargantuan challenge. If we don’t find solutions, the threat will be even graver for our children and grandchildren. There is no question that we need to pull together, use all of our energies, and apply all of our ingenuity to find solutions to the huge issues that confront us. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of all - pulling together as a community - as this is possibly the one thing we are least prepared to do.

Our social fabric has become deeply rent by a pervasive culture of polarization and divisiveness. We seem to be unable or unwilling to listen to divergent views, and we are certainly unwilling to negotiate compromises in which everybody gives a little, nobody gets all they want, but the common good can thrive. Yet, it is this search for common ground that provides the only viable mechanism for developing solutions for the confounding problems we face. We need to accept the fact that nobody has exclusive ownership of the truth but that we can find it only, if we come together and earnestly and honestly search for it in an unconditional dialog.

And this is our Museum’s other great goal: “to connect our diverse communities” in order to help repair our tattered social fabric and to bring people together so that they can discover common ground and common interest in the midst of all divisions. There are so few institutions nowadays that do that. Even our churches and religions seem to divide us, let alone race, language, ethnicity, social status, income level, and political persuasion. It is our ambition for the Museum to be “a safe place to discuss dangerous ideas,” as one of our previous directors used to say. And nowhere is this search for common ground more important than in the search for solutions to our momentous environmental challenges.

For this purpose, the Museum has recently begun to sponsor “town halls” on contentious environmental issues, most recently on the topic of “Oil in the Channel.” We’ll do many more of these in the future and, while the McCain event is not a town hall sponsored by the Museum, it is nevertheless an event that is exceedingly important to our community. You and I may or may not agree with Senator McCain’s position on environmental issues, but I fervently believe that it is worth, even important, listening to him. We would be delighted, if Senator Barack Obama and his campaign were to hold a similar meeting at the Museum.

Karl Hutterer is the executive director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.



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