By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2007
The American Petroleum Institute yesterday rescinded its offer to give the Smithsonian $5 million for a major exhibit hall and Web site on the world's oceans, ending a controversy destined for the institution's Board of Regents meeting on Monday.
The decision is a setback for Cristi¿n Samper, the acting secretary of the Smithsonian, who has said the ocean exhibition is "very close to my heart." Samper approved the contribution in his current role and helped develop the Ocean Hall when he was director of the National Museum of Natural History.
Two leading members of the Board of Regents, one of them a U.S. senator, indicated they would oppose accepting the gift. They worried that oil-and-gas money could taint the "Ocean Initiative" showcase. The regents, who must approve major donations, were expected to review the matter on Monday. They delayed approving it at two previous meetings.
API President and CEO Red Cavaney notified Paul Risser, the acting director of the Natural History Museum, that he was taking the money off the table in a one-sentence letter delivered yesterday. "The purpose of this letter is to inform you that API is rescinding the Aug. 29, 2007, offer of financial support for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Ocean Initiative, effective immediately," Cavaney wrote.
Karen Matusic, a spokeswoman for the petroleum institute, explained the reason for rescinding the gift: "Since API was first approached by the Smithsonian Institution seeking additional funding support, circumstances within the Smithsonian have changed, to say the least."
Risser said he was disappointed. "I thought this was an opportunity to work together. I certainly respect any decision they made, and we'll find other ways to proceed with the ocean portal," which Risser envisioned as a major multimedia Web site that would publish original research and information for the public. The gift would have extended over five years and the initiative would have included API's logo and credit for the institute.
"I think it is unfortunate in the sense that both API and we had worked very hard on an agreement that represented the values of the museum and gave us an opportunity to help people understand and know about the ocean," Risser said.
Risser said API's decision will not slow the construction of the Ocean Hall, which will cost $49 million and be the largest standing exhibition at the Natural History Museum, but could have an impact on the launch of the Web site. The petroleum money was earmarked to sponsor the online portal, and Risser said the museum will search for a new donor for the multimedia site.
There was a similar controversy in 1985 when a $5 million gift from Saudi Arabia was solicited by then-Secretary S. Dillon Ripley for buildings near the Smithsonian Castle. It was ultimately rejected by Ripley's successor, Robert McCormick Adams. Members of Congress had objected to a Center for Islamic Arts and Culture being situated on the Mall.
The last major donors to rescind a gift were Catherine Reynolds and her husband, Wayne, who in 2002 took back $38 million meant for a hall of achievement for prominent Americans. She withdrew the donation after Smithsonian curators and others objected to focusing on the rich and famous rather than the history of ordinary Americans.
Also, the Natural History Museum's handling of an exhibit on the Arctic yesterday captured the attention of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs a committee that oversees the Smithsonian. Feinstein wrote to the Smithsonian seeking "further explanation regarding allegations that political pressure influenced the content of a recent exhibit on the Arctic."
Feinstein's letter referred to yesterday's story in The Washington Post quoting internal memos and correspondence from NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists stating they thought that the Smithsonian toned down references to climate change for fear of a political backlash.
Members of the petroleum institute, an 84-year-old trade association representing more than 400 oil and natural-gas corporations, viewed the donation as a way to show the industry was concerned about global warming and other environmental issues.
API has given about $200,000 to various parts of the Smithsonian, including the Natural History Museum, the astrophysical observatory and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md.
Board members at API were upset at the content of an e-mail exchange published in The Post detailing the internal debate on the petroleum gift, according to two people close to API who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. The e-mail was sent by Risser to Board of Regents Executive Committee Chairman Roger W. Sant, who led the regents in questioning the donation.
Risser wrote, "Because petroleum companies have not always been friends of the oceans, one logical conclusion would be to deny their participation in the Ocean Initiative. My view is different. It is based on courage and anticipation, on the belief that the Smithsonian has the strength to use understanding to change behavior like no other institution."
Sant declined comment yesterday but previously he told the Post, "I want to be sure that the sponsor's behavior is consistent with the message we're trying to deliver. It is a question mark given the record of oil spills in the past two decades." The other regent who questioned the gift was Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
Samper, who is a candidate for the secretary of the Smithsonian job, referred calls to Risser.
Asked if he would have done anything differently, Risser said the museum had followed usual procedure and he was surprised by the outcome. "We didn't have any indication of difficulties with it" before Sant raised questions about the donation at the September Board of Regents meeting, he said.
Staff writer Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this story.