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by Bryce J. Renninger
November 21, 2013 2:22 PM
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Should Public Museums Be Open to Screening Controversial Issue Films?

"Shored Up" Ben Kalina

Earlier this week, the filmmakers behind "Shored Up" were profiled in the North Carolina weekly the Indy Week.  The film, it seems, was forbidden from screening at a weekly Science Café at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences by the museum's director, the geologist Dr. Emlyn Koster, after it was sent to the Science Café Programming Committee.

The film explores the coastal areas of New Jersey and North Carolina in an effort to link the ways that coastal areas have been ravaged to extreme weather events and rising sea levels.  The film critiques the policies made in North Carolina, and according to Indy Week, North Carolina recently passed a piece of legislation, backed by development and real estate interests that "restricts the ability of state agencies to accurately forecast and prepare for sea-level rise. As a result, developers could continue to profit from building in vulnerable, low-lying coastal areas free of additional regulations that would apply if the state accounted for higher seas."

While the film was taken out of consideration by Koster himself, Koster's explanation speaks volumes about how the exchange of ideas supposedly offered by public institutions may be eroding.  Indiewire reached out to the museum for an elaboration, and Koster released the following statement:

"Shored Up" Ben Kalina

The Museum’s decision regarding the film “Shored Up,” reached via both the views of our program committee and myself, was based on a straightforward criterion: Would this 60-minute film be the best way to present an important issue to our more than one million annual visitors? The answer, which we have reviewed with the Coastal Federation and explained to a news media inquiry, was a respectful no. This decision should not be confused with our respect for the important work of the Coastal Federation.

The Museum’s mission – which is uniquely propelled by core questions of what we know, how we know, and what’s happening now – obliges us to deploy the array of resources available to this pioneering museum to engage visitors at all ages and stages of learning. As you may know, our experiences include: seven floors of interactive exhibits (including a prominent theater about climate change), coastal dioramas on coastal and sea level science, research laboratories where the public can ask questions, investigate labs where visitors can perform experiments, a Naturalist Center with hundreds of specimens available for examination, more than 200 species of live animals that qualify us as an indoor zoo, and the multimedia Daily Planet Theater with daily live presentations from scientists from our staff and from around the world.

When we wanted to present a program on space exploration, we didn't just show a film. We secured a live down link with an astronaut (a North Carolinian no less) aboard the International Space Station who answered questions from schoolchildren who were in our auditorium. To educate our visitors about snakes and other reptiles, we hold an annual Reptiles and Amphibians Day with speakers, interactive programs, and exhibitors from around the state. To recall the contributions of, and discuss the controversy that still surrounds, the late Rachel Carson, we partnered with the NC Humanities Council to feature an actress who specializes in portraying Ms. Carson followed by a lengthy question period: this unusual approach received a strongly positive audience evaluation. And in one other example, at 1 pm Monday we went live to Cape Canaveral for the launch of NASA’s next mission to Mars with an explanation by, and questions with, our two resident astrophysicists.

For contemporary issues that connect science with societal innovations and environmental stewardship, the most constructive role for this Museum is to be an engaging venue with multiple resources and views. It would be a disservice to the people of North Carolina who generously funded the construction of the Museum, and who are joined by other visitors from all other US states and numerous other countries, if we were to maintain that showing one organization’s film constituted a comprehensive approach to an issue as significant and complex as sea level science. Each educational venue of the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources – whether this State Museum or a State Aquarium – has a public responsibility to bring mission-related topics to the fore in a way that best applies its particular toolkit. Applying my extensive museum-field experience of successfully illuminating controversial matters for diverse audiences elsewhere, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences – which I joined earlier this year – is nurturing both the expectation and the effective means to similarly illuminate controversial matters that are relevant to the past, present and future of this region.

"Shored Up" Ben Kalina

Dr. Koster mentions the museum's involvement with a Rachel Carson event in order to show his and the museum's support for revolutionary science, but it should be noted that "Silent Spring" was originally published over 50 years ago, and it led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.  Those that critique her science often use it as a way to debunk the justifications for the EPA; encouraging debate about Carson is quite a different beast than forbidding a screening of "Shored Up" all together.  In addition, though Carson's work was originally sponsored by the Audubon Society, she gained much of her research through a relationship with a public institution, the National Institute for Health.

The parallels between this situation and the recent brouhaha over Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's Sundance film "Citizen Koch" are remarkable:  the private support of public institutions seems to (though it can't be directly proven) be encouraging the silencing of critical voices.

READ MORE: Why Did ITVS Take Away Funding from a Sundance Film It Had a Deal With?

When WNYC aired Alex Gibney's "Park Avenue," the film that supposedly worried ITVS into revoking its funding of "Citizen Koch," it aired a roundtable discussion afterwards with David Koch and Charles Schumer in which they were given the last word, in an opportunity to defend their actions as presented in the film.  Gibney wasn't invited to defend his film or to send anyone to defend the content of it for him.

In this case "Shored Up" director Ben Kalina had this to say in a blog post on the film's website:

"Shored Up" was crafted for exactly this kind of event.  It is a film grounded in consensus science that addresses the far-reaching impacts of climate change now and in the future.  The event we imagined was intended to reach across the political spectrum, fostering debate and dialogue between scientists and the public and the public and politicians so that we can find common ground and a way forward to solve the enormous problems we face. Sure these are complex problems, but we’re sophisticated people.  We can find solutions.  But how can we begin to tackle these issues if even our most prominent science museums sidestep a role in the debate?  I’m sympathetic to the fact that some of the subjects raised in the film could be perceived or construed as being politically sensitive, but now more than ever we need our stalwart institutions of science and reason to provide a framework for these critical discussions.  I sincerely hope that Mr. Koster and the museum leadership re-considers this decision and works with us to hold the kind of event and conversation that is so desperately needed.  

In an interview with the Indy Week, Kalina spoke about the importance of bringing up the issues the film raises, saying,

The film asks the question: What should we do about coastal development? Because it will be devastating for communities, and in the hardest-hit areas, there are often issues of social inequity. People in the U.S. see [storm-related devastation] and think of people in faraway places, like the Philippines. But we'll have our own climate refugees. Hurricane Sandy made that visceral...We can have regional compacts, and it's an issue on a global scale, but it has to start at the community level with a long-term plan. When you put infrastructure in place, will it some day be under water? If people can afford to rebuild in these coastal communities, we should think about natural buffer zones to slow the storm surge. And as the new FEMA flood maps are released, insurance will be more expensive and it will be more costly to live in these areas. And then you'll have the gentrification of these places.

It seems like Koster and the museum might not be budging anytime soon, but what is the best way to engage with the ideas in a documentary like this one?  And should museums and other public institutions be beholden to certain standards -- or the demands of the public -- in making programming decisions?  How should museums best handle situations like this?  Let us know what you think in the comments below.

1 Comment

  • Angela Alston | November 22, 2013 7:03 PMReply

    Should public museums show controversial films? Of course, if the film is well crafted and researched. Have a discussion after with 2+ sides to the controversy represented! Moderated to keep discussion civil and on point.