Stonewalled by the god-touting museum

December 14, 2013 • 11:44 am

Ten days ago I posted about a disturbing sign in a publicly funded museum; details from the original post are below:

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?


At the same time, I wrote to as well to Dr. Jane Pisano, director and president of the Museum, as well as two people at the Museum’s education and public programs office, objecting to the sign and requesting an explanation (you can see my email at the link above).

Response so far: zippo, zilch, and nada.

Either they’re pondering a response or they blew me off. I won’t pursue this further, except to point out that it’s rude to not respond to an evolutionary biologist who writes about a sign like this.

79 thoughts on “Stonewalled by the god-touting museum

      1. I don’t need to go to that link to dismiss the claim without further thought. Whoever is selling whatever is being sold at that link either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what the CMB actually is.



  1. Jerry – As you well know from your experiences with people at the Field Museum in Chicago, public museums are feeling pressure from conservatives and right-wingers, and that is especially so for museums that get state funding from Republican legislatures. Here in NC, where we have complete Republican domination now (both houses, governor), there seems to be pressure on the museum to cow-tow to such pressure (but no one admits to that in public). The Director just sacked Margaret Lowman, who was highly regarded for her work on public outreach (she’s accepted a new position at a museurm in CA) and then the Director refused to show a documentary on sea level rise (which as you also know, the study of which has been restricted by NC legislators who don’t think it is or ever will be a problem). So, Directors are becoming more timid because they fear the loss of operating funds. This stealth manipulation of the scientific agenda through funding cuts is impairing the ability to get good science out to the public.

    1. The museum Jerry referenced is in CA, where Dems control all state funding. Not that they’re not also feeling the pinch (due to the economy), but it can’t be blamed on the Repubs.

    2. Oh god I hate our current regime here in NC. I can’t wait to vote Mccrory and his Mccroonies out of office. They’ve destroyed our reputation as a ‘progressive’ southern state.

    3. …the study of which has been restricted by NC legislators who don’t think it is or ever will be a problem…

      No doubt you’re in a better position to judge than I am, but my impression from afar is that they know full well it’s going to be a problem, which is precisely why they want to stifle discussion of it at least until their buddies have had a chance to dump their oceanfront properties before the market for them tanks.

  2. I suspect the subject statement, which is in quotes, may have been a “condition of gift”. That said, I doubt that the museum officials made much of a push-back to it. I certainly agree with Mr. Neufeld’s comment above.

  3. It would be too bad if they don’t have the courage to respond (I can’t think of any valid arguments they have to support their choice for such a sign). I have learned that the curators and collection managers are very upset about this and they have been in discussions with the Museum Administrators.

    I encourage those of you that feel that a response is necessary to send an email to the following people:

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

    1. JGago- Do you have any more information about what is going on behind the scenes? I will draft a letter to these three people. I don’t envy them, though, as they are certainly under a lot of pressure to raise funds.

      1. I heard that the sign was placed on the glass at the entrance to the Nature Lab very early in the morning without many (if not all of the curators and managers) knowing anything about it. Rumor is that the decision was probably made by the President alone. I know that many have written emails to the President and VPs but no response has been offered by these administrators to the Museum staff. It is embarrassing.

        At least one of the VPs has a doctorate in paleontology. What would be Dr. Chiappe’s response to such a sign? His staff profile at the Museum ( “One of the core programs of my research is the origin and early evolution of birds.” Does his research show that God did it? . . . seriously doubt he thinks this way.

          1. It does, but since most scientists that I know love their jobs, the jokes regarding the sign have already started to flourish!

        1. Luis Chiappe has certainly shown no signs of cretinist tendencies, and is highly respected for his work, which is mainly on Mesozoic birds. I haven’t had any direct communication with him and have no information on what goes on (even within my field of vertebrate palaeontology) in institutional politics, which I have always found repellent even within the continent I inhabit.

  4. I read “anonymous donor” as “anonymous derper.”

    Also, if you have to celebrate ALL of “God’s creatures,” don’t you necessarily HAVE to celebrate HIV, Malaria, Cholera, Smallpox, etc.? “God’s creatures” aren’t restricted to Koala Bears and Bunny Rabbits.

      1. Damn your Guinea Worm. Sooner or later I’m going to have to Google it. And I *know* I’ll wish I hadn’t but I won’t be able to forget it, ever… 🙁

        1. I think in this instance the Latin is even better: Dracunculus It comes off to me as sort of Dracula as a pejorative.

    1. Perhaps a curator with a mortgage and kids in college who is more interested in the paycheck than integrity could, nonetheless, push back by organizing just such an exhibit behind the sign. You could just make sure that when you read the sign you couldn’t help but also see an exhibit celebrating these wonderful creatures. Plasmodium, after all, is exceedingly fascinating.

      1. a curator with a mortgage and kids in college who is more interested in the paycheck than integrity

        Not a fair characterisation; if you knew any, you’d know that curators don’t really work for the paycheck, and can’t exactly flounce off into another institution or career path while maintaining the integrity of their research projects (which tend to be totally dependent on non-portable collections, equipment and funding).

        1. Though very badly worded I meant something of the same thing. I should have said something like “needs the paycheck” instead of “interested in”, because my intent was that it’s not always reasonable to expect people to make a stand for minor points of integrity when their jobs/careers are on the line. I certainly wouldn’t imagine that they are in it “for the money”, as they say.

  5. It’s just tacky. Yet another intrusion of piety into public life. I usually just take note of it an move on, but these small additions of religion into speech and signage add up over time. It’s entirely meaningless, but pollutes the culture, like so much prayerful noise. Objecting against it is useless and brands you as one of ‘those’ crackpots who can’t tolerate their embrace of religion.

    In another 20-30 years, Americans will say something other than ‘Hello’ and ‘Good-bye’, perhaps ‘God Greet You’, (similar to the way parts of Switzerland and Bavaria used to say ‘Grüß Gott’ for hello and good-bye.)

    1. Austrians also say Grüß Gott, (as well as Küß die Hand) (cool – just figured out how to do the umläuts and scharffes s on this site;-)

    2. Objecting against it is useless and brands you as one of ‘those’ crackpots who can’t tolerate their embrace of religion.

      This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If reasonable people swallow their objections for fear of being called crackpots, that just reinforces the perception that only crackpots speak up about such things. But if everyone who finds this objectionable were to say so, then it stops being crackpottery and starts being an opinion worthy of respect.

      Have the courage of your convictions. Be the change you want to see in the world.

      1. NOW I recall how I was acquainted with the National Trust action in the first place. It’s getting close on to a decade since I ceased not only egregious abuse, but use altogether of substances that f_&k with or eradicate brain cells. Sadly, in some instances — like this one — it’s as if my previous attempt at a perpetual party never ended.

  6. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all in favor of god bothering. But this is a quote from an anonymous donor, who probably required that his/her quote appear as a condition of the donation. That may be a bad thing, and maybe this place should have rejected the donation, given that condition. But though you (and I) may find this objectionable, it doesn’t follow that it’s some big Constitutional issue, a violation of church and state. It isn’t. The establishment clause does not prohibit mentioning of God on public property. It prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another, and from interfering with the free exercise of religious belief. This is generally held, correctly I think, merely that the government may not mandate a national religion, and not that all talk of God be off limits in public settings. If that were so, then the Declaration of Independence would run afoul of the Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … So while this may be a distasteful display to many, I don’t think it’s any affront to the Constitution.

    1. Well, first… The Constitution of the United States established the ground rules for the country. Documents that were written before that can not reasonably be described as having “run afoul” of rules that were established later on.

      Second, when a public institution provides space for religious messages it can not avoid being seen to be endorsing the religious message. The only way around this is to argue that the space in which this message exists is available to all other religious points of view. So if this message stands, then it is entirely reasonable for others to expect equal treatment, perhaps putting up a sign thanking Joseph Smith for his contribution to our understanding of human migrations in ancient times.

      Oklahoma is dealing with this as we speak.

    2. “This is generally held, correctly I think, merely that the government may not mandate a national religion…”
      Nope, that’s wrong; that’s not what the 1st Amendment means It was never understood to be limited merely to forbidding a national church. NIt was never understood to be limited to forbidding a national church. Since 1925, it is incorporated at all levels of government by the 14th Amendment. Government entities – national, state, local, public schools, publicly-funded museums, etc – must refrain from “excessive entanglement with religion”. They are not allowed to act in favor of one religious sect over another, nor religion in general over non-religion. This is settled constitutional law. Whoever told you differently is simply wrong.

      Of course, it’s always possible that the current US Supreme Court, packed with conservative Catholic judges, will move to reverse nearly 100 years of previous Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church and state.

      And there does remain a question as to whether the mention of capital-G “God” is by itself forbidden favoritism of religion over non-religion, or whether it’s merely in extremely bad taste in a science museum. It’s probably not worth a court case, but that doesn’t mean that it’s actually legal.

      1. The sign does’t mention any particular religion or sect. It merely uses the term “God,” while in the Declaration of Independence “creator” was used. Perhaps the founders were early IDiots?

        If it can be shown that it’s settled law that government must be absolutely neutral between, not just competing religions or sects, but also between religious belief in general and atheism, then a case can be made for removing this sign. But it may not be a very strong case even then. The statement on the sign is attributed to an anonymous donor, and not to a government institution. One could also make the case that any government institution that forbids in any public context the religiously neutral mention of “God” or “creator” is censoring free speech.

        1. As noted elsewhere on this page, wording in the Declaration of Independence is irrelevant. It is not the founding document of the United States of America, the Constitution is.

          If government-owned property is to be made available for purposes of religion, it must be equally available for all citizens for these purposes. “All” includes Satanists, Hindus, and atheists. So the choice comes down to whether this space should become one dedicated to pro and anti religion displays or if it should simply remain what it was intended to be, a museum of natural history.

          The decision to make it more than a museum, and provoke controversy has been made by a wealthy religious donor and senior administrative staff unwilling to stand on principle.

          1. Bear in mind that on this reading of the Constitution, every time the new president of the United States takes the oath of office, swearing to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the U.S., he already violates his oath! Why? Because almost all of them “swear” on a bible (though the constitution specifically affirms that they may use the word “affirm” instead of “swear”) and almost all of them conclude with “So help me God.” Now, you may think that in so doing, these incoming presidents really do violate their oath, and offend the Constitution, but very few others think so, and the courts certainly have not stopped this. Indeed, to prevent presidents from doing this dumbshow, even if they don’t really believe in it but are doing it for the masses, would likely violate the second part of the Establishment clause: that free exercise of religion (which presumably includes free speech about it) shall not be impeded. Also, if we were to take this fundamentalist view of government and religion to its logical extreme, its reductio, then virtually all of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, justly regarded as one of the greatest pieces of political literature ever penned, violated the Constitution!

        2. The sign appears on a building that is publicly funded, and as long as it remains it confers tacit governmental acceptance of commingling state and religion, with synergistic concomitant reduced secularism. It is one more brick removed from the wall the 1st Amendment to the federal Constitution erected separating the institutions of government and church.

          Equally bad, if not worse, is the potential for harm at the state and local level. A great many state constitutions contain even more stringent separation language. Christian Reconstruction/Dominion forces in society, already formidable in number and funding, savor small giveaway’s like these. It is incentive to be ever more bold in seeking opportunity to wedge religion into the secular domain.

        3. One could also make the case that any government institution that forbids in any public context the religiously neutral mention of “God” or “creator” is censoring free speech.

          There’s no such case to be made. Freedom of speech does not require the museum (or any other public institution) to turn their entry into a graffiti wall for religious zealots.

          And “the religiously neutral mention of ‘God’ or ‘creator'” is an oxymoron since such mention implicitly endorses theistic religions over non-theistic ones.

            1. But if they had chosen not do it, that would have been censorship? I’m still not seeing how that argument makes any sense.

        4. “The sign does’t mention any particular religion or sect. It merely uses the term “God”… ”

          Cute try, but no cigar; there is only one religion which arrogantly assumes that the name of their particular god is “God”, that is Christianity. All other religions have other specific names for their god(s) – so this sign, worded as it is, welcomes only Christian witnesses. That doesn’t mean that the author meanly intended to show prejudice against non-Christians. It does show Christian privilege in action here when they assume their Capital-G “God”, their particular religion’s god, is sufficiently inclusive that no other devout family could feel left out Where’s the mention of Brahma’s creatures?

          Would the museum, for any amount of money, have installed a sign reading “celebration of Allah’s creatures”? No? No, of course not! Christian privilege in action.

          “… while in the Declaration of Independence “creator” was used. Perhaps the founders were early IDiots?”

          Yes, they may have been; so what. What does that have to do with the US and CA state constitutions? Nothing. You’re repeating a red herring.

          “If it can be shown that it’s settled law that government must be absolutely neutral …”

          Huh, where did that ridiculous ABSOLUTELY pop in from? You choose to ignore that I already quoted the correct formulation of the required neutrality, that is “must refrain from ‘excessive entanglement with religion'”. Yes, it is an opening for quarrels about what is “excessive” entanglement, but it’s infinitely better than your strawman “absolutely neutral”.

          “… not just competing religions or sects, but also between religious belief in general and atheism, then a case can be made for removing this sign. But it may not be a very strong case even then. ”

          Correct, it’s not a very strong case, at least not in the current conservative-Christian dominated judiciary. This is the Court that rebuffs challenges to under-god in our pledge of allegiance and in-god-we-trust on our currency as merely “ceremonial deism” that no one should be offended by.

          Of course I’m offended, as are some Hindus, Buddhists, orthodox Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as other Christians who don’t believe we should take the Lord’s name in vain by putting it on filthy lucre … but I recognize we may take another century to disentangle our government from all of its (historic) expressions of Christian favoritism.

          “The statement on the sign is attributed to an anonymous donor, and not to a government institution. ”

          Shame on you. If someone pays you to put a KKK bumpersticker on your vehicle, you – not they – are responsible for the prejudice when you display it while driving around town.

          Legally, and morally, it doesn’t matter that an anonymous donor paid for the sign (that is, as we assume, required the sign as a condition of donating the Nature Lab funding). What matters is that a publicly-funded agency, sited on land owned by the public, has agreed to host the “God” sign. The museum, by hosting, gives the appearance of agreeing with the prejudice in favor of Christian-God believers and in disfavor of all non-christians.

          The US Supreme Court has already ruled on the same principle regarding 10-commandment monuments donated by private charities being displayed on public land. They must move back to privately owned ground where their display is appropriate and not unconstitutional.

          “One could also make the case that any government institution that forbids in any public context the religiously neutral mention of “God” or “creator” is censoring free speech.”

          Nonsense. “Censoring”? That’s Christian paranoia right there. Don’t be more of a patsy than you have to be. No one is being censored by the government nor advocating censorship on the part of the government. The anonymous donor is perfectly free to purchase a giant billboard on private property to announce his celebration of “God’s” creatures as large as he wants. No one is going to stop him, or even want to try.

        5. “If it can be shown that it’s settled law that government must be absolutely neutral between, not just competing religions or sects, but also between religious belief in general and atheism, then a case can be made for removing this sign.”

          “Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of no-religion, and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite. The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.”
          — Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)

    3. It may not be in Federal law, but in state law, it clearly violates Article 15, Section 5 of the California Constitution.

  7. Much ado about little? I think the priority at present is the continued funding of natural history museums. That a generous benefactor provided the means, and requested a statement as displayed, bears little relevance to the business at hand. Engaging in discussion with the museum only continues the pointless debate. Everyone most likely understands that it is what it is, so be it. Science continues, as the sign indicates.

    1. Much ado about little? My eyebrow raises in disbelief to your assertion. Maybe if the donor had donated just a bit more, they would have included just a couple of verses from Genesis chapter 1?

    2. That’s the kind of attitude that eventually leads to the teaching of christianity in the public schools in the United States.

      The christians are looking for any “foot in the door”, that is what they need to push further and establish more presence.

      You may as well be the “anonymous donor” if you are willing to call it “Much ado about little”. Some day they will come and paint a christ stick on your house and you will have dissuaded everyone who might have helped you remove it.

      1. You misconstrue my central point. The battle being fought now is over the survival of natural history collections and their staff. As a whole, the issue of “god” appearing in a message is far more benign than congress undermining the very engines of science in our country.

        1. No, your central point misses the point.

          Yes, museums are under intense survival pressure. No doubt about it. But part of this is due to a very poor understanding among the public because of hostility to science from religion and because of undermining of scientific institutions by religiously motivated forces.

          There is a bigger war going on, but this “little” thing is part of it.

  8. Maybe they just need a sign on the front door like they have before movies: Opinions expressed by our donors don’t necessarily reflect the official stance of the museum nor do they represent reality. Visitor discretion is advised.

    1. “…nor do they represent reality”. Nice. I like that touch, but I suspect the donor would tear up the check.

  9. It wouldn’t even take much of a response.

    “The quote, clearly attributed to an anonymous donor, was put in place at the request of the donor and does not reflect the views of the museum or any of its staff. It is not the intention of the museum to endorse the statements of its donors. The museum felt the nature of the gift warranted an acknowledgement of the anonymous donor in this form, as no other public acknowledgement of the donor can be made.”

    I don’t think it would make any of us happier with it for all the reasons expressed in the previous thread; what if Allah or Vishnu or Q’uq’umatz was credited with the creation instead? I also don’t think it would make the sign pass Constitutional muster.

    But…I do think such a statement would mollify a court sufficiently that they might not take up the case, and it would be hard to persuade them to remove or change the sign in the current climate.

    Not replying at all, of course, is not at all the right response.


    1. It’s times like these when I wish I were rich. I’d love the special instructions portion. I can’t decide if I’d use my power for good in ridding the world of woo and financing science or use it to make silly requests. Oh heck, in this fantasy I’m filthy rich so I’ll go ahead & use it for both!

      1. Hell, I might even be tempted to toss a few pennies at Ham’s Ark Park on the condition that all employees (and volunteers and contractors, etc.) must wear colanders on their heads at all times while on the clock.

        I’d even let them paint crosses on the colanders or make up stories about them or whatever. Ain’t I generous?


        1. Yeah and at the same time you could finance something to combat them. You’d have the money so why not entertain yourself?

          1. Yeah, but the main way I’d go about combatting them would be by funding basic research by people like Jerry and Richard. I might commission or sponsor some books or lectures or TV shows or the like from them, too…except that’s the sort of thing that they’d do anyway.


      2. And exactly what would your instructions be? Mount toilet paper rolls the wrong way in all museum lavatories? No thank you!

  10. davidm is right. California may be governed by Democrats but that doesn’t mean it has the money to fund worthy projects like this one. The museum needs the money, the donor wants the quote. The donor may be so used to thinking in these terms that he or she doesn’t even see the God assumption as anything special. Some scientists may be upset about it, but the money is needed and the quote will remain. And the project that was funded will remain too, which is what’s important.

    1. But will the scientists remain? Will the museum be able to and retain top-quality staff with that message on the door and this controversy in the blogosphere?

      We’ll likely never know what went on behind the scenes, but my uninformed guess is that all this could have been avoided by persuading the donor that the quote as written would be a legal and PR liability for the museum. If the donor was sincere about wanting to fund the science, they would have been open to such persuasion.

      On the other hand if they really were prepared to pull the plug unless God’s name went on the door, then good science was never their goal and the museum would be better served by seeking another donor whose priorities aligned more closely with theirs.

      1. It is worse than not being able to attract and retain.

        Museums are now systematically allowing their professional science staffs to wither. When scientific professionals retire they are not replaced. In their place grows ever larger marketing departments.

        As elsewhere in our broken economy, staff is reduced to part-time workers. These young people are well educated and would love nothing more than a life career in a museum. Very few will manage that goal.

        Meanwhile the CEO and senior management types at museums are offered ever larger compensation.

          1. These figures are in line with what I’d expect for top executives in the nonprofit sector.

            If you want to grumble about something, grumble about the fact that their counterparts at for-profit corporations make ten to a hundred times as much.

  11. I recently visited the Museum of Science in Boston, which I hadn’t been to in over decade. Aside from noticing how run-down the place had become, I was infuriated to see a “Chinese Herbal Shop” on display, which presented “alternative medicine” as a valid avenue of scientific pursuit.

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