May 26, 2003
I recently attended the opening of Subhankar Banerjee's Arctic Refuge photo exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. As one of the contributing authors for the companion photo essay book, "Seasons of Life and Land," I was disturbed that Banerjee's beautiful photos had been hung in an obscure hallway, and the informational captions, including some of my own words, had been censored.
Banerjee, originally from Calcutta, India, spent two years photographing the Arctic Refuge through all of its seasons. He traveled 4,000 miles on foot, by kayak and via snowmobile. His stunning pictures capture the austere beauty of arctic wilderness and the tremendous diversity of flora and fauna that thrive in the refuge.
While many photographers have visited the Arctic Refuge during summer, Banerjee and his Inupiat guide, Robert Thompson, explored the coastal plain in the heart of winter. On one frigid trip they hunkered down in their tent for 29 days, through subzero blizzards and 60 mph winds. If not for Thompson's toboggan, their tent would have blown away.
Banerjee didn't regret the experience. The dedicated photographer feels lucky to have captured photographs of a mother polar bear and cubs emerging from their den. He also took beautiful winter pictures of musk oxen, moose, porcupine, ptarmigan and the intrepid American dipper, a songbird that feeds underwater at open springs, even through the long arctic winter.
For several months the Smithsonian planned to feature Banerjee's pictures in one of the exhibit halls on the main rotunda floor. The photos were carefully sized and designed for mounting on specific walls in this prominent exhibit room. Natural-history captions were created and given final approval by two Smithsonian editors.
But the plans for Banerjee's exhibit were suddenly altered after Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., encouraged her colleagues to review Banerjee's beautiful pictures. After Boxer's March 19 speech, the Smithsonian appeared to bow to political pressure and moved Banerjee's exhibit to a ground-level hallway that leads to a cargo dock. The detailed captions were censored and transformed into vapid labels.
In the shadows of the Washington and Jefferson Memorials, it is particularly egregious that our most prestigious museum would succumb to such pressure. Such censorship can be considered an infringement of our First Amendment rights.
In 1997, the Smithsonian housed a 20th anniversary Alaska pipeline exhibit. During this exhibit, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, promoted oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge during an event that was held under the roof of the Smithsonian.
During the opening of Banerjee's exhibit, no one promoted the passage of wilderness legislation, nor did anyone discuss the threat of proposed oil development. Banerjee simply showed his beautiful arctic pictures in a dramatic slide show.
Perhaps Banerjee's exquisite photographs are so truthful that they undermine Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton's statement that the Arctic Refuge coastal plain is a "flat, white, nothingness."
The day after the opening of the exhibit, I autographed some of my nature books at the museum's bookstore. While there, several people asked for directions to Banerjee's exhibit, as they couldn't find it. There were no signs to direct visitors to the hallway that was located behind an escalator. Two visitors who saw the exhibit loved the photos, but noted they would have appreciated more caption information. One visitor spent several minutes trying to find porcupine in a caribou picture captioned "Porcupine herd."
On the 100th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System, it's despicable that the administration feels it has to hide pictures that show the true beauty and wildlife of our greatest refuge, censor the captions and continue its drill-it-now quest.
Debbie S. Miller of Fairbanks, Alaska, is the author of "Midnight Wilderness" and many Alaska nature books. Her essay, "Clinging to an Arctic Homeland," is published in "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land," by photographer Subhankar Banerjee (Mountaineers Books, 2003).