Religious accomodationism in a public museum

December 4, 2013 • 8:08 am

The sign below, forwarded by a reader who just visited this institution, just went up in front of the new Nature Lab at, of all places, The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County—a public museum. Nature Lab appears to be a hands-on facility where everyone, but mostly kids, can learn about how science is done. That’s a great idea, but why on earth did they have to mar it with this paean to a fictional being?

Natural history museum

Given the quotation marks, I bet the donor insisted on the wording. It would be much truer, and not a possible violation of the First Amendment, to say “to celebrate all of evolution’s creatures.”

My guess is this: the donor was going to give big bucks to the Museum, but insisted on mentioning God’s creatures as a condition of his donation. The Museum, eager for cash, decided to bite the bullet and add some deity to the exhibit, but put it in quotation marks.

But that’s not good enough for the petulant Professor Ceiling Cat. First of all, it misleads the public in two ways: by giving a scientific imprimatur to the idea that animals are “God’s creatures,” and second, by not really making it plain that the quote was insisted on by the anonymous donor—if that’s the case. I myself didn’t get that when I first saw the sign, so how many people will understand? The lesson they will take away is that creatures were the product of God, and that the Museum endorses that.

It’s a cowardly capitulation to religion, all in the desire to get money. That’s the same thing that motivates people to take Templeton cash. And had I been the director of the Museum, I would have refused the donation if the mention of God came with it. Polluting science with religious garbage takes precedence, to me, over having a Nature Lab. What if the gift came with a requirement to endorse “God’s creatures that were all created at once 6,000 years ago”?

At least the Smithsonian is too smart (and perhaps sufficiently well off) to have signs like this.

I’ve emailed Dr. Jane Pisano, the president and director of the museum, as well as the education and public programs office of the Museum (email addresses at links), voicing my objections and asking for an explanation. Here’s my email, and stay tuned:

Dear Dr. Pisano,

A friend of mine who recently visited the new Nature Lab at your Museum forwarded me the attached sign, which ascribes the existence of animals to God.

I suspect, but don’t know, that this quote was one that came from the anonymous donor, as implied by the quotation marks.  Perhaps he or she insisted on this quote as a condition for funding, something that I think the Museum should have resisted strongly.

As an evolutionary biologist, I object to the invocation of God—in two ways. First, scientific evidence shows us that animals are not “God’s creatures,” but “evolution’s creatures.” Thus the sign gives the impression that God had a hand in evolution, and implicitly puts the Museum’s imprimatur on that sentiment. Second, it’s not perfectly clear that this quote comes from the donor (I didn’t get that myself on the first glance), and will certainly be misinterpreted by some people as the Museum’s own sentiments.  Thus the sign is doubly misleading.  Finally, the invocation of God in a public museum could be seen as be a violation of the First Amendment.

Regardless of what the donor wanted, I think it abrogates our scientific principles to “celebrate all of God’s creatures” when that statement is, by scientific lights, palpably wrong.  Would you have taken the money from someone who insisted that the gift celebrates “all of Wotan’s creatures,” or “all the creatures created by space aliens”? Those signs are just as scientifically supportable as what appears on the sign now.

I recognize that Museums are strapped for funding, and do think that Nature Lab is a good thing. But I don’t think it’s worth kowtowing to religious sentiments, and polluting the nature of science, simply to get money.  The very existence of the sign, in fact, undercuts the mission of Nature Lab: to teach people how science is done. I needn’t remind you that science is done by ignoring God, and has never given the slightest bit of evidence for the intercession of God in the origin, evolution, and diversification of life.

Yours sincerely,
Jerry Coyne

159 thoughts on “Religious accomodationism in a public museum

      1. How about, “I don’t have anything interesting to add to the discussion, but I do want to follow it?”

        Or would you prefer that I come up with something trivial for you to read and waste you time on, rather than just typing “sub?”


      2. WTF does a snarky question like that mean other than “I’m a newcomer here and am too lazy to look through history to find one of the other gazillion times this question has been answered and too rude to ask politely”?

        Just wondering.

  1. Oh, no. Not again.

    “All God’s creatures” is suitable only in a fantastic context that includes talking animals, four-legged insects, giants, dragons, sea monsters, and the like.

    And, if in a museum, it should ideally be sandwiched between “All Jim Henson’s creatures” and “All creatures from Harry Potter.” And, of the three, I’d spend most of my time in the Henson exhibit….


    1. Good point. The Nephilim and Leviathan must feel very left out.

      Seriously though, they could have just left out the “of God’s” part or substituted “Earth’s” if they wanted to put the fundie money to good use and not be contentious about evolution. For shame.

    2. Not quite fair to the museum; they have a statement regarding Evolution on their website:

      Everything emphasized in that statement seems to be in accord with the views emphasized also here at this bl_g.

      I know of some curators working in that museum (and I have deposited specimens there, and plan to do so also in the future). The curators I know there are unadulterated evolutionary biologists. I wonder how these curators feel about the wording of “God’s creatures”.

      1. It’s even worse, then, for it makes the museum look hypocritical to have that statement on their website (which of course no visitors read) and then take money on condition of posting a quote that overturns their very principles!

        Had I know that I would have been even harder on the museum, so I was fairer than I should have been.

      2. I’m a curator at the museum, and one of the authors of the evolution statement (albeit I strongly disagree with the link to The Clergy Letter).

        While I’m a staunch anti-accommodationist, that is not the case among all the curators. I agree with Jerry that the conjunction of the quote and museum statement on evolution connote hypocrisy. Many natural history museums have morphed from scientific institutions to corporate entities. The biggest casualties have been the principles of science and the public’s opportunities to learn those principles.

        1. As a curator…any chance you can offer any insight as to how this sign came to be?

          …and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if there’re all sorts of reasons why you couldn’t….


          1. I only know second-hand details, so not at liberty to discuss in this venue. Regardless, the details wouldn’t be pleasing.

  2. But now, doesn’t the Museum have a problem, even if the director agrees with every word of your letter?

    If funding the Nature Lab by the donor was contingent on the Museum’s acceptance of the language on the sign (or some variant of the language) what is the Museum to do now? How does removing or altering the sign language affect a possible contract that may be in place? Would the Museum be required to dismantle the lab (or the parts directly funded by the donor?)

    1. My solution would be to change the sign to say that the quotation was required by the donor as a condition of funding, and that the Museum does not endorse that quote. I’d also add that they see animals as “creatures of evolution,” not creatures of God.

      I’m sure they will do nothing, but at least they know that there are some scientists who profoundly disagree with what they did.

      1. That’s much too sensible.

        I’m guessing that the language of the sign was a very large and expensive part of the funding negotiations.

        Which does sort of get us back to the idea that the quotation marks represent the best compromise the Museum could make and still get the donor’s money. Nasty business all around.

  3. The only rational response to your letter should be:

    “My bad. I will correct this error immediately.”

    But somehow, I don’t think that will happen. I hope this doesn’t have to go to court where the museum will lose after spending money.

  4. Putting that god comment up also alienates a portion of the population that is larger than most minority religions (the nones). I’m sure a lot of funds could be raised for the museum by secular groups to replace the donation that came with god strings attached.

    1. I think the situation is a lot more complicated.

      The negotiations have already taken place, contracts have been signed, and the lab has been built.

      The laziness of the Museum in accepting the donor’s deal in the first place notwithstanding, you can bet your lunch money that what the Museum can do it about it all now is virtually nothing, without involving law firms, the courts, and the inevitable return of the donor’s money (plus unspecified damages.)

      1. First, the quote does not bother me much. Nonreligious people will shake their heads and move on with what demonstrably is a great adventure for kids and family.

        That being said, if I were the curator, I would rip the quote off the wall. What’s the worst that can happen? Close the museum. Tell everyone to go home. A new quote will hang on the doors: “We must close our doors because a religious donor wants the universe to be a way that it is not.” In the long run there may not be any museum, but religion will continue to be marred by its only foundation: faith, not facts. And faith+money does not equal facts.

        Any action the museum takes against the quote, no matter how financially painful, will only benefit secularism and hurt religion. Nobody said a life worth living was easy, except maybe the religious.

        1. It bothers me that kids go there and read that statement. Besides making non religious kids feel weird about it, it supports the garbage these religious kids are told with the tacit message that scientists recognize god as well.

  5. Prof. Coyne
    Cutting through the apologists BS and defending science are what you do best. Keep up the good work.

    1. Agreed. That was a great letter and an inspiration. I sent a tiny email to the education department telling them they are doing a great job and wish them luck…but they could lose the religious quote.

      They could also append a statement that suggests, as Jerry mentioned, that they do not endorse the “quote” and that it is not a scientific prescription related to the process of discovery and participation that they actively promote.

  6. Well, MY solution would be to keep the quotation marks and place them only around the word “God.” “God’s” creatures.

    Scare quotes — an implied smirk, wink, and clearing of the throat while rolling one’s eyes. That’ll work.

    1. Perhaps someone can accomplish that with a permanent marker without being caught by some Big Brother security camera.

  7. Honestly, I’m just surprised the anonymous donor even chose to remain anonymous. I’m being much too judgmental when I think that someone who insists on a quote like that being a necessary part of their donation would also like their name attached. But maybe they think appearing anonymous will give their quote some mysterious-person merit? Not that that makes much sense either. . .

    I’m glad it’s at least in quotes, as well. I’d imagine it’s difficult to have something like that appear in a museum and have people not automatically associate it with it being an opinion shared among the museum staff.

    Would it be disrespectful to ask a staff member if they’re expected to play along and agree with the quote, or if it’s up merely as a courtesy?

    1. My feeling is: Why have the quote at all if you won’t say who it is. The person clearly gave the money — so you DO know who it is, they’re choosing to be anonymous.

      In my view, forcing a public museum to place anti-science wording on an exhibit is a little of a mismatch. They should at LEAST have the courage of their apparent convictions and own the quote.

  8. Interestingly (and on the bright side), the larger museum’s website specifically states that it “protects over 35 million specimens, dating back 4.5 billion years”

    If this can be said on the website, it can be said prominently in the museum, methinks!!

    One of the political activists who persuaded LA to construct the museum was an attorney and Sunday school teacher concerned with the “growing numbers of saloons, gambling events, and other vices” that were populating the area.
    ( Presumably, Mr. Miller, as an attorney, realized a public museum promoting natural history (and what back then was called “natural philosophy”) shouldn’t act directly as a venue for his personal religious views, and wisely refrained from requesting such a mention.

    Finally, California has historically much stricter on church-state separation than even the Federal government (in spite of the fact that the CA constitution mentions God unlike the USA constitution.) However, most of the provisions strictly deny government support for anything “sectarian”, and it is an interesting legal question as to whether a mention of a generic God is “sectarian” or not (especially given the invocation of God in the CA constitution.)

  9. I think your point about accepting money with the condition that such a quote be part of the installation is well taken. There are other sources of money, I would think. This “anonymous donor” is probably pretty pleased with him(her)self.

    1. Actually, I think the fact that some here are suggesting that donation money is easy to come by shows that very few have ever worked in development (as fundraising is typically called by institutions).

      1. If the mission includes “to teach people how science is done” as Jerry notes, it would be well to teach that a large part of that process is the pursuit, capture and ingestion of funding.

        The point at which science gets done is far back in the financial digestive tract of modern institutions. Most museums, like most universities, have been becoming increasingly bottom-heavy as curators and researchers are dumped in favour of more and more administrative drones, who naturally pay themselves a lot more than mere scholars and artisans.

        Would the museum display the quote for a hundred dollars? Certainly not!

        How about for a hundred million? Well, duh.

        …and then they were just haggling about price.

      2. Point taken. I don’t really know enough to make a judgment there. Plus I don’t really know what the museum administrators were thinking when the quote issue came up. All I can do is speculate.

  10. I’d guess that the fact the museum uses quotes is an indication that it wanted to make clear the sentiment wasn’t their own, but mandated by their donor. They could have just put the statement there without attribution.

  11. I have been involved in the negotiation and signing of charitable donation agreements on both sides of the table at different times, on behalf of donors and on behalf of recipient charitable organizations, where the donor insists on imposing conditions on the gift, such as “naming” rights, etc. When properly drafted and documented, such conditions are legally binding, and violation of the conditions can trigger an obligation to return the donated money or property (and also to a reversal of the charitable deduction originally claimed by the donor).

    It is a good guess that the donor here insisted on having the statement be displayed publicly. Quite plausible.

    In a situation like this one, I suppose that the NHM could have cleverly drawn a “frame” around the quoted statement, saying “We are contractually bound to display this statement but we don’t endorse it.” But I have represented and advised board members for some small time museums and science educational organizations. Most of those board members, as unpaid volunteers, would be reluctant to reframe the anonymous donor’s statement in that fashion, and risk a lawsuit claiming that the condition on the gift has been violated. Even if the donor would lose such a lawsuit, the musuem and its board members would rather avoid the expense and the headaches.

    1. Well, they didn’t have to take the money in the first place. But of course the implicit assumption is that the need for money trumps everything, including the principle that science is God-free. Money talks, principle walks.

      1. …the need for money trumps everything,..

        There’s a quote for that:
        He that is greedy of gain troubleth his own house; but he that hateth gifts shall live.
        Proverbs 15:27

  12. I agree that the sign needs to come down, and Jerry, your letter is an excellent call for same. But I can also see this situation as a positive sign. It used to be that you could just barf out god/Jesus stuff wherever/whenever you wanted to, public, governmental etc. Now, you gotta pay (probably big-time) to get something like this posted. And, hilariously, you gotta do it anonymously so people don’t make fun of you.

    Now, what would be really funny is if there’s enough of an outcry, or anonymous is outed or something, so that he/she/them agrees to let the sign come down, but doesn’t insist on donation refund so as not to look any more ignorant.

  13. Another opportunity for those obsessed with “fighting” religion (instead of being obsessed with educating the public about science) to rant and rave. That statement, in a publically supported museum, does not in any way “establish a religion”. It gives no aid to any particular religion, nor is it preferential to any specific religion.

    There are far more important things upon which to spend your energy.

    1. What a rude comment, but of course many new commenters don’t know how to behave on this site. Just let me remind you, Mr. White, that I spend a huge amount of time educating the public about evolution. I teach it, write about it for the press, and wrote a book about it. These are not “obsessions,” but “things I’m interested in.”

      And there is no ranting in my article, either, nor in my letter to the President.

      You don’t seem to realize that religion is the biggest opponent of religion, and education will make precious little headway in the U.S. until we get rid of the religious opposition to it.

      In the meantime, you need a time out for your rudeness. I don’t appreciate being told what to write about, and suggest that if you don’t like it, you go elsewhere.

    2. When I public institution offers a soapbox for religious messages, even seemingly benign ones like the one under discussion, it subtly disenfranchises those who believe differently. The statement about “God’s creatures” gives support for religion, and specifically for a religion of ONE god. So Hindu’s and certain Buddhists, among others, who believe there are more than one god, are disenfranchised. So are those who believe in fewer than one god. It’s a fight worth having sooner rather than later, because a dangerous weed is better nipped in the bud.

    3. Aside from the rudeness of telling Jerry what he should do with his energy, your understanding of religion is most parochial if you don’t understand why attributing life to the eponymous god, “God,” privileges it over all the other religions with one or many gods, none of whom is named, “God.” That would include Hinduism, Buddhism, indigenous religions the world over, all sorts of variations on the Paganism theme…and, quite credibly, many Jews (form whom writing out the name of their god except in certain situations is most blasphemous) and Muslims (whose supreme god is named, “Allah,”). And, further, in many of those religions, the supreme deity was not responsible for creating all or even any life on Earth.

      Some worshippers in those religions might go in for a form of ecumenicalism that would gracefully suggest that the “God” referenced can be silently substituted for their preferred creator god or goddess, but, even then, many others would consider such to be blasphemous.

      In my experience, only the most ignorant and / or bigoted of Christians are capable of such insensitivities. Almost everybody else realizes that the world and its religions are far more diverse than a singular deity named, unimaginatively, “God,” whose characteristics are exactly congruent with one or more aspects of the Christian Trinity in its various manifestations.



    4. Yes, atheist activists have far more important things to spend their time on than atheist activism.

      The point can certainly be made that even science activism has a moral obligation to argue against religious encroachment into neutral, public, scientific space — but since everyone else has already gone there I’m going to make a full-fledged argument in favor of atheism and against religion.

      Why? Because religion is wrong on multiple levels. Fighting religion is a damn GOOD fight. And what you call “obsession” is what would normally be termed “focus.”

      Gee, you want us atheists to focus on something else.


      We don’t care for the terms of the truce.

      1. Not to mention that invoking this “god” character in that statement is plainly false and misleading. A place like a museum that educates people is doing a disservice to its patrons.

        Seems like removing such god statements is exactly what scientists and atheists should insist upon before the whole world is over run with such falseness!

    5. If the donor were “obsessed with educating the public about science” why did s/he make the inclusion of that statement a condition of his/her donation?

  14. Wouldn’t “all evolution’s *animals*” be more appropriate? After all, “creature” means “created”. Now, it is true that evolution also creates, but using “creatures” leaves a whiff of godly creationism.

    1. Organisms, not animals. Plants, prokaryotes, bacteria, and archaea are all products of evolution, as well. Viruses, too, wherever the hell they belong on the tree of life.


      1. My sign would say, “all this stuff is from evolution. Come and look at it.” 🙂 I like to be inclusive to the banal and finesse challenged.

  15. Now they’ve set the precedent, would they have to accept a donation that said “all of Allah’s (blessed be his name) creatures”?

    Ot better “all of evolution’s creatures created without any intervention from a God or Gods”

  16. To me the quote is clearly that of the anonymous donor. BUT, it makes one wonder what other requirements the museum may have agreed to in order to get the dough (which they no doubt are in need of – museums often operate on the slimmest of financial margins). Did the donor say the money could not be used for any exhibit that would promote evolutionary theory? To what extent does their annual budget become dependent on the good graces of a religiously-minded patron?

    1. Yeah, I don’t think anyone’s saying that.

      We’re talking about museums, not people who have to swallow Jesus with their meatloaf when they’re accepting charity at a soup kitchen.

      Museums, especially the museum that’s being discussed in the OP, represent their collections as being “true”. There’s an implicit agreement between the museum and the attendee that the attendee is not being hoaxed or otherwise lied to by the museum. (NB: excluding creation museums and the like, but they’re lying for Jesus, so that’s all right, then.)

      Science or natural history museums which start playing around with this contract erode their own foundations, not the least of which is the attendee’s confidence in the museum’s integrity.

        1. So…what, because the society we live in is imperfect we must either flail around ineffectually or else embrace the insanity?

          Or are you suggesting that the words printed on cash and coins somehow have magic spellcasting powers that either turn those who use them into believers or cause them incalculable anguish?

          If the latter, I feel so incredibly sorry for you on this, Wotan’s Day, with Thor’s Day coming up tomorrow. Look out for the Frost Giants!


        2. Jeepers.

          Your second comment doesn’t follow from your first, and if it’s meant as a reply to mine, I don’t understand you.

  17. While I understand your annoyance with the placement of “god” here I don’t think it is a violation of the first amendment for it to be placed there. It’s not a governing institution.

    1. “Governing” is irrelevant. Schools, too, aren’t “governing”. It is wrong (and likely illegal) because it is a public institution.

      1. A so-called “public” institution can violate the Establishment Clause if it receives significant support in the form of taxpayer money (public funds), or if the institution is managed or run by a board on which elected officials have voting control, or if the institution itself was created by statute or local ordinance. If the institution satisfies any of those criteria, then the institution is a “state actor” like the federal government or a state or local government agency, and it can violate the Establishment Clause.

        In this case, the name of this museum (“. . . of Los Angeles County”) implies that at least one of the above three criteria may be present, and therefore that this museum is a “state actor.” Still, the concepts of “coercion” and “endorsement” run through Establishment Clause case law. Does Los Angeles County compel people (busloads of public school pupils) to visit the museum? I don’t know. Does this museum’s posting of the odious / ridiculous quotation from the anonymous donor amount to a governmental endorsement of a particular religious message? The answer is not obvious to me.

        ASIDE: The fact that an institution is open to visits by the public or receives donations from the general public does not, by itself, make the institution vulnerable to an Establishment Clause claim (This is one reason that the Creation Museum in Kentucky is still open and has not, to my knowledge, been sued for violating the Establishment Clause).

        On the other hand, a “public institution” that does not fit the above criteria, and therefore cannot violate the Establishment Clause, can still violate the civil rights laws by engaging in unlawful discrimination. Such discrimination could occur on a “religious” basis. For a variety of intentional and non-intentional reasons (legislators doing what they do), the civil rights laws have “evolved” to make religious discrimination less actionable (n fewer settings, or with a more challenging burden of proof) than “racial” discrimination.

        In the situation of this natural history museum and the anonymous donor’s quote, I would not want to be the lawyer representing a plaintiff against the museum and trying to prove that the museum was engaging in religious discrimination by displaying the quotation. It would be a very tough sell. An Establishment Clause claim looks easier by comparison . . . if this museum is supported by public funds or if elected officials (or board members appointed by elected officials) are able to exercise voting control over the museum’s operations.

        1. How is “There is a God who has an interest in creatures on earth” not a “particular religious message”?

          This museum, like ours here in Milwaukee, is a public-private partnership between the non-profit Natural History Museum Foundation and the County. I’m willing to bet that the collections and facilities in LA are owned by the public. Personnel and policy are most likely the parts that are managed “privately”. Does that get them off the hook? Could they, if they wish, put up a display of a 90 foot ark with statue of Jesus riding a dinosaur?

          1. A public-private partnership would not get this museum “off the hook” if there is public (taxpayer) funding or if significant assets of the museum are owned by the county or provided by the county (the land under the museum building(s), etc.).

            Yes, the quotation can be interpreted as a “religious message,” but the notion that some supernatural entity created the natural world and all life form has such a long history, and is so familiar (and unfortunately non-controversial) to so many Americans, that it would not be easy (I think) to convince a court that the museum or the county government had endorsed that religious message in violation of the Establishment Clause. It’s a plausible claim, but it’s not a home run or a walk in the park (pick your metaphor).

    2. The Establishment Clause holds for all government actors, not just governing institutions. The local dogcatcher is no more permitted to perform duties in Siva’s name than Congress is permitted to declare Shintoism the official religion of the US.

      There are, of course, notable unconstitutional exceptions commonly found, such as all the official prayers opening official meetings. The typical excuse is that the prayer is to a popular ecumenical interpretation of one of the favorite gods of the Abrahamic family of religions, but I never did understand why it’s okay to privilege that particular god over all the others — especially considering all those who hew to Abrahamic religions (even ignoring non-Abrahamic ones) who find such prayers blasphemous.



      1. It’s not really okay, and it shouldn’t be (if the Establishment Clause were applied fairly and consistently). But governmental inertia, judicial laziness or timidity, and a fairly long history of unearned privilege for Abrahamic monotheistic religion have combined to give us a messy and unjustified set of exceptions usually labeled as “ceremonial deism (“In God We Trust” on money, “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, prayers opening sessions of legislative bodies, etc.) that are claimed to have only negligible religious content and therefore not coercive or harmful to the rights of the (growing) minority who are not believers.

        I guess we will find out during this Supreme Court session, in the Town of Greece v. Galloway case, whether the Court (with its Catholic majority) will leave the mess as it is (perhaps by finding that the plaintiffs had no legal standing) or make it worse. I’m not holding my breath for a ruling that would improve the state of the law and make it easier to apply in the future.

        1. I must admit to having damned little faith in a Court that has yet to address the question of an Executive so out of control that it’s hoovering up not only email and telephone conversations, but even cellphone location data:

          As important as Establishment cases are, they pale in comparison to a government that tracks its citizens in minute detail, summarily executes them, extraordinarily renditions them, tortures them, steals their homes for trivial and trumped-up excuses, and more.

          That the Court has seen fit to not only rubber stamp but outright encourage the current state of affairs…well, Greece v Galloway amounts to little more than panem et circenses in the current context.

          And, again, yes, the Establishment Clause is hugely important to what our country is supposed to be — it’s just dwarfed by everything else that’s going on….

          <sigh />


    1. This IS an egregious example of accomommodationism, but in any case, Jerry’s got a whole lot of powder–all of it, dry.

      1. Cool. I didn’t know of such a thing but now that you point it out, concern trolling is pretty common.

    2. It’s okay, I’ve stockpiled some out back and kept it good & dry. Yous are all welcome to it if you run low!

  18. Actually I stated incorrectly. It’s not a violation of the first amendment because it doesn’t involve congress making a law that takes away freedom of speech, religion, or peaceful assembly which is all the first amendment addresses.

    1. But the !*California*! Constitution says the state shall not “pay from any public fund” anything that aids a religious sect, creed, or church or “help to support or sustain” any religious institution, NOR…grant “any donation of personal property” for any religious or sectarian purpose.

      Now the museum is on public property, specifically a public park, so it does seem to violate that last bit, unless the sign is not ruled to be “sectarian”!!

      Historically, the Californiacourts have allowed religious displays in public parks if symbols from multiple religions and secular symbols are allowed as well. This is a greyish area, since it’s not specifically Christian, but it is specifically monotheistic, so it is at least on the margins of troubling territory.

      On the Federal level, the 14th amendment extends the Bill of Rights to the actions of state governments, and to the actions of government officials even if it does not involve Congress “passing a law”. So I do not think your argument really holds.

  19. Heh.

    The Page Museum in LA — next to LACMA — has a godddamn timeline where they have 2000 yrs ago marked as birth of Christ.

    I saw that and was LIVID. My gf was like ‘tra la la’ but it REALLY irks me when museums have unsubstantiated bullshit. Aren’t we past this?

  20. (I haven’t read the comments yet, so I hope to echo others in this)

    Isn’t it hypocritical to have the wording quoted by a known person who is listed as anonymous?

    Seems like if you are going to tack something onto an exhibit as a label, either it should be true or, if a quote, the person who said it should be quoted — not ‘anonymous’.

    Anonymous donor. **eye roll

  21. And had I been the director of the Museum, I would have refused the donation if the mention of God came with it.

    That’s why you’re not the director of the Museum!

    I’m afraid I can’t share the outrage. A donor was allowed to insist on a personal quotation as a condition of the donation. So? I can’t imagine trying to defend myself for having refused it.

    1. But, see, it’s not a personal quotation. It’s an ‘anonymous’ quotation attributed to the donor who isn’t named.

      It’s a kind of cowardly attack. Like someone came up behind you and smacked you in the back of the head.

      Look: “Natural History Museum” < it's a public museum. "God" and gods can't be observed or proven.

      This isn't literature where we speak in the present tense about stuff known to be untrue.

    2. So? It is a natural museum, not a religion museum. Of course most people interested in science would be livid.

      [Which makes me wonder, how often do religion museums have anonymous donors quoted with “celebrating evolution’s creatures … to broaden our understanding of superstition”?]

  22. I am fundraiser and you are most certainly correct. It was obvious to me immediately that it was a quote from the donor but I can certainly understand that it wouldn’t be to someone who’s not in the biz.

    I have never seen a recognition plaque that quotes the donor and this does set a nasty precedent on at least two fronts. One, will future donors to the museum feel entitled to have their own quote on a plaque?

    Two, I seriously doubt any museum in the USA would stand by a sign that read “…all of Allah’s creatures…” and I don’t envy the Director of Development who will need to negotiate that gift.

    All in all, this is unfortunate for the NHMLA and for non-profit as a whole but not that surprising considering the pressure we are often under to take funds at any expense.

    1. This is where I wish I were rich & could get people to do what I want. Put up the quotes I like, finance the science I want done…crush my enemies, get a car like Tony Starke…..

  23. The lesson they will take away is that creatures were the product of God, and that the Museum endorses that.

    Uh? The lesson I take away is that one of the major donors is highly religious. That also seems a pretty simple lesson to impart correctly to one’s kids: there is a quote on the wall from Anonymous Donor talking about God because an anonymous person who gave a lot of money to the Museum believes in God.

    Now, I’d agree that the museum needs clearer and stronger rules about what a donation gets you and doesn’t get you. Allowing quotes opens up the big ugly box of content adjudication – and frankly, the donor’s name on a brick or nice marble facade should be just fine. But even so, I don’t take away the ‘museum endorsement’ message you do, Jerry.

    1. The question isn’t “what do you take away”, but “what does the average member of the public take away”.

      1. I could make the same comment back – the question isn’t what JAC takes away, it’s what the average member… such arguments quickly fall into the argument from authority, with one of us claiming to know the public mind better than the other. Its useless; I reject your criticism as a ‘wash,’ – supporting neither my position nor Jerry’s any better than the other.

        The museum should strive for clear communication: what are they saying vs. what their sponsors are saying. They do that. The speaker is identified as a donor.

        Second, there is the parity issue. If a different donor submitted some nonreligious, pro-science quote, would you insist on caveating it up the wazoo to ensure patrons didn’t mistake a mere donor’s opinion as the museum’s? No? Then you shouldn’t do it here. There’s only two ways to defend such a double standard, and both of them are bad. The first way is to admit that citing the donor (as was done here) is ‘clear enough’ communication. In which case your argument againt caveating the religious quote gets undermined. The second way is to say that a name citation doesn’t clearly distinguish between the museum and the donor, but you don’t mind the public being mislead in the case of a pro-science quote. That’s really bad too. I don’t want to win minds through deception and confusion, and I hope you don’t want to either. So, unless you are arguing that we caveat every donor quote, no matter what the content up the wazoo, I don’t see how you can defend the idea of caveating this one.

  24. Jerry, I am of two minds about this issue, after reading both your post and all of the comments, most of which are full of good things to think about. But I still am not able to fault the NHM for accepting this donation even with religious strings attached, given the recent major financial crises hammering other prestigious museums such as the Field Museum. I would appreciate hearing your (and any readers’) thoughts on this story in light of the drastic budget cuts the Field Museum was forced to make.

    1. Maybe it will help settle the issue to consider a slight modification of the scenario. Imagine a wealth person/organization came to you and said “I’ll endow the museum with N millions of dollars as long as you put up a creationist display in the Earth History section.”

      Would you do it? Does it matter if the display is just a small one? How about if it just says “God made all this stuff”?

        1. ORLY?

          What if the quotation was one from Darwin, or the Bible, or Richard Dawkins, or Pat Robertson? Or thanks given to Allah or Brahma or Satan? Do you really think that people walking past a prominent quotation from any of those sources wouldn’t take those words as an official endorsement from the curators?

          The only reason you’re not offended is because you don’t have a problem with the particular god being worshipped here.


          1. Now Satan would be a good one. Maybe something from Paradise Lost like “I am alpha & omega” – yeah, it doesn’t have much to do with the museum but it does show what god does to you if you dare to try to hard. Satan comes off looking pretty good in Paradise Lost.

          2. Why does it have to be all or nothing? Decisions on donations and accompanying strings should be made on a case by case basis. Some things are clearly outlandish and inappropriate; this case is, at worst, in a gray area.

            1. Again, change the name of the deity being invoked and the outlandishness of this example becomes painfully obvious. Quetzalcoatl? Hanuman? Cthulhu?

              None of those would be gray areas, and neither is this one.


          3. Actually I think the more outlandish the quote, the more likely it is that people walking past won’t take it as an official endorsement from the curators.

            They are much more likely to breeze by and not critically analyze a quote that is comfortable to them. Put somethig up about Satan or Allah or from Dawkins, and they will actually stop and think about the words and what the ” – Anonymous Donor, 2013″ part of the message means.

            The only reason you’re not offended is because you don’t have a problem with the particular god being worshipped here.

            I’m a nonbeliever, strongly secular in outlook regarding any government support of religion, and I’m not offended by this.

        2. You simply ignored the fact that god endorsement comes in many forms and act like only strict young earth creationism is the problem. Why is “God made all this stuff” OK to you? How about “Allahu Akbar”? Would you be fine with that?

          As soon as you introduce a deity into a public museum context like this you do two things. First you contradict the mission of the institution because there is absolutely zero evidence that a deity is needed to understand the universe. If “god did it” (anything regarding “his creatures”) it becomes a creationist display.

          Second, once you put up this sort of thing you are in fact endorsing religion, at the very least. That is not appropriate for a public institution.

            1. Except, of course, that that’s exactly what the quote says — specifically, the “God’s creatures” part. Claims to the contrary are as absurd as claiming that Jim Henson didn’t create the Muppets and the rest of Henson’s creatures.


            2. “Living creatures came to be by a completely natural process. But now God has taken ownership.”? That makes no sense, does it?

              Please explain to me what “God’s creatures” means, exactly. Because I read that to mean precisely “God made the creatures”. I’m having trouble coming up with an alternate meaning that isn’t pure word salad.

          1. I would counter-argue that you are simply ignoring the “- Anonymous donor, 2013” part of the quote.

            There is certainly someone endorsing god here. That person is identified in the quote as not being the museum.

            Second, once you put up this sort of thing you are in fact endorsing religion, at the very least.

            Jerry presents the quote in all it’s glory right at the top of this article; does that mean he’s endorsing it? Obviously not! Why not? Because context of the quote and the words that go along with it matter for whether it’s an endorsement or not, right? Good god, every mere mention of the word “god” is not an endorsement of some being’s existence. That’s lunacy.

      1. And I find it hard to believe that the community would be better off without the Nature Lab and than it is with the Nature Lab + donor quote side note.

        Besides, as some have already noted above, “God’s creatures” does not automatically imply creationism, but simply that the donor is Christian.

    2. I bet the museum could drum up a lot of donations from the secular community. If they were to make a plea to keep their museum secular, I’m pretty sure they could get a lot of donations from atheist, secular & humanist organizations who would even do fundraising for them. Think of the funds that atheists have sent for disaster relief, etc.

      Now, it may be that the money was really big, but still I’d scale it back and look at rolling out in phases with support from the secular community.

      1. And let’s not forget that the “Nones” outnumber many prominent religious organizations (including, for example, Jews), and that many of the wealthiest individuals (such as Bill Gates) are out atheists.

        It’s not like the God Squad is the only source of philanthropic funding — not by a long shot.


        1. This brings it back to my original concern. Other museums are struggling financially, and the NHM no doubt is aware of this. So why would they even risk suffering the same fate? As someone who works in a research and collections based museum that is funded with both public money and private donations, in a state with a governor who continues to slash higher education funding, you take what you can get if the price is right.

          1. Are you saying that you think that if they refused the funding because of the god element and went instead with funding elsewhere that they would risk financial ruin due to bad press? They don’t have to be overt about it if that’s the case.

            It may be reductio ad absurdum, but at what point do you walk away from $$ that comes with strings attached that require stating a falsehood? When the donator asks you to put other inaccurate or false statements differentiating intelligence based on brain size or race or gender or a quote from Deepak Chopra or….

            1. The point is that there isn’t always funding elsewhere, and it would be a bad decision to rely on the hope that alternative funding would arise within due time, especially with a major donor already in hand.

              1. I for one would be willing to do a phased roll out. As Ben says, we’re just haggling over price now.

              2. Perhaps a concerted effort to educate a donor on the principles of science could reduce the likelihood of these sorts of situations. It could be one of the ‘selling points’ of the importance of their contribution.

          2. I see. So, as the muchly-attributed joke goes, now we’re just haggling over the price, eh?

            I’d like to think that institutions such as these have at least a bit more integrity than you’re giving them credit for.


  25. As a non-American and clearly a cultural outsider, I quite honestly think that the whole “separation of church and state” in this country is legally true, but in practice it is completely fake. The fact that the coin says “in God we trust” and the pledge of allegiance says “one nation, under God”, already is an open discrimination (and almost feels like persecution, minus actually being put in jail) to all non-believers. It is not a wonder to us outsiders why the US is at the top of the list when it comes to not accepting evolution. As some other commenter said, I think it’s already a step in the right direction that this sign causes enormous controversy, and one can hope that one day they will not be possible in public places… but alas, this country is far from that day… again, start by changing the “God” mentioning in constitution, pledges, courts, coin, etc. On another note, I personally know several curators of the LACM that worked specifically on this exhibit(and am very close to one), and know that not only do they not endorse this, they have no control over this. These new exhibits were, on some levels, very poorly organized, very last-minute, and close to zero communication between curators, designers, and educators in charge of the exhibit. The curators are not to blame (they probably didn’t even know about this until now), but the higher-ups in the museum and the people in charge of negotiating donations.

  26. Are there examples of scientific donors supporting ecclesiastical institutions?

    Maybe one day a donor quote in a church will read, “The New Chapel Wing is a gift to our congregation to appreciate the scientifically proven origin of life and enable us to broaden our understanding of God’s world through the application of faith.”

    Or perhaps this is even more ridiculous?

  27. I have spoken to a couple of colleagues at the Museum and they all agree this is embarrassing. Emails to the president and VPs of the Museum complaining about the sign are more than appropriate. Here are the people who need to hear from those of us concerned about this issue.

    Dr. Jane Pisano ( Museum President
    Dr. Luis Chiappe, ( VP of Research and Collections
    Dr. Karen Wise ( VP of Exhibits and Education

  28. I don’t know if anyone has commented about this. Frankly, I don’t have time to read 150+ comments. But the Smithsonian natural history museum has a … rather disturbing treatment of climate change in the new human origins wing. It treats climate change as a natural phenomenon that humans are well adapted to handle. Climate changes, we do, too. It’s part of evolution, and the current increase in greenhouse gases is no exception. One of the Koch’s donated the money for it, so no surprise. But, well, I guess I was surprised that the Smithsonian would allow such an accommodating view of climate change (to the deniers, that is) and human existence.

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