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Should Public Museums Be Open to Screening Controversial Issue Films?

Should Public Museums Be Open to Screening Controversial Issue Films?

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:

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
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

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.

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
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

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.

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