The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is one of the oldest museums in the United States. Its doors opened in 1877 and since then has expanded to include 28 interconnected buildings, 45 permanent exhibition halls, and over 33 million specimens throughout the world’s natural history. This building is, without a doubt, a monument to science.
In a campaign, certain groups have been pressuring museums, including the AMNH, to divest their holdings from fossil fuel investments, claiming that these ties to the oil and gas industry are contradictory to what museums should represent. Yet this argument that museums have a moral obligation to set an example for other institutions is just another flawed attempt to impose divestment in various areas of society.
In a recent article, James Lawrence Powell, executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium, argues that his main concern for museums having fossil fuel investments is that “it makes the share-holder part owner of the company.” Instead of taking Powell’s advice, institutions should recognize that investing in a company actually brings about the changes groups are looking for by encouraging companies to create a sustainable future. By having part-ownership, institutions – whether its museums, universities, foundations or pension funds – are able to have a voice within the organization and steer the company’s agenda to goals that align with their “morals.”
Even Drew Fraust, the former president of Harvard University, noted how divesting from fossil fuels would undermine companies’ ability to research and create a sustainable future:
“I also feel compelled to ask whether a focus on divestment does not in fact distract us from more effective measures, better aligned with our institutional capacities… Divestment pits concerned citizens and institutions against companies that have enormous capacity and responsibility to promote progress toward a more sustainable future.”
Additionally, the cost of divestment would harm the portfolio of institutions, including museums, to the point of lowering the rate of return. This financial consequence would be detrimental to the museums’ ability to continue to grow, research, and educate the hundreds of thousands of visitors it receives it each year.
As pressure continues to be placed on institutions throughout the world, board members and decision makers need to remember how their choices will affect the future of many – including the agendas of companies it has shares in and the beneficiaries that the institutions serve.