Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Riskless business

The Darwin exhibition frightening off corporate sponsors

An exhibition celebrating the life of Charles Darwin has failed to find a corporate sponsor because American companies are anxious not to take sides in the heated debate between scientists and fundamentalist Christians over the theory of evolution.

The entire $3 million (£1.7 million) cost of Darwin, which opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York yesterday, is instead being borne by wealthy individuals and private charitable donations.

The failure of American companies to back what until recently would have been considered a mainstream educational exhibition reflects the growing influence of fundamentalist Christians, who are among President George W Bush's most vocal supporters, over all walks of life in the United States.

While the Darwin exhibition has been unable to find a business backer - unlike previous exhibitions at the museum - the Creationist Museum near Cincinatti, Ohio, which takes literally the Bible's account of creation, has recently raised $7 million in donations.

The outbreak of corporate cold feet has shocked New York's intellectuals. "It is a disgrace that large companies should shy away from such an important scientific exhibition," said a trustee of another prominent museum in the city, who was told of the exhibition's funding problem by a trustee of the AMNH.


The AMNH is coy about its failure to find corporate money to mount the exhibition, which will tour the US before moving to London's Natural History Museum in 2009 to mark the bicentenary of Darwin's birth.

Asked which companies had refused to give money, Gary Zarr, the museum's marketing director, said he would have to ask those concerned before he could identify them.

Steve Reichl, a press officer for the AMNH, said a list of forthcoming exhibitions was sent to potential sponsors and none wanted to back the Darwin exhibition. He declined to reveal which companies, or how many, had been approached.

On its face, it's as unsurprising as it is disgraceful that businesses would avoid faux-controversies like this--who wants to run the risk of noisy wingnuts calling for boycotts 24/7 on Fox News? It's also not surprising that the museum is declining to release the names of the businesses who begged off sponsorship.

But consider the context. Visitors to the AMNH, even those visiting from the bible belt, shouldn't be surprised to see Darwin's legacy embraced by the museum, nor would they reasonably expect creationism to be given a hearing. They have a very nice emergency room at Bellevue for folks who flip out when they can't find Adam, Eve, Noah's Ark or Baby Jesus in any of the dioramas.

The threat of the squeaky wheel also turns the marketing economics of the situation topsy-turvy. Using the blue state-red state dichotomy as a very rough index of the purchasing power of hard core creationists likely to make trouble, it's clear that the ideal target market for the corporate sponsors are blue-oriented consumers. Sure, we can put the heat on the folks who sponsor creationist fiascoes and buy blue whenever possible, but how can we effectively organize any actions against those (frequently anonymous) corporations who don't sponsor something out of fear? And how can we give props to those who step up to the plate?


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