Sierra Magazine

Lay of the Land

Oil Trumps Art

The Smithsonian sidelines a major arctic photo exhibit

It didn’t take long for freelance photographer Subhankar Banerjee to go from the top of the world to the basement. This spring, the Smithsonian Institution was about to open a major exhibition of his photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in its grand rotunda. But then Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) displayed some of his photos on the Senate floor, urging her colleagues to visit the show before voting to allow oil drilling in the refuge.

Within days, the exhibit was relocated to an out-of-the-way gallery, and already-approved captions were stripped from its pictures. The rationale, as stated by Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small, was that the captions "contained statements that might have been construed as advocacy for a particular position on ANWR." The only such statement, however, was in a quote from former president Jimmy Carter that had been proposed by Smithsonian staff: "It will be a grand triumph for America if we can preserve the Arctic Refuge in its pure, untrammeled state." The other censored captions were purely descriptive passages, mostly from Banerjee’s field journals. The Smithsonian also threatened Banerjee with legal action if he mentioned the institution on the jacket of his book, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land (Mountaineers Books).

Who pressured the museum? Alaska senator Ted Stevens (R), a vocal proponent of drilling, swears it wasn’t him. He did, however, praise the Smithsonian’s action, pointedly noting that Congress controls its funding. (Stevens chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.) He also accused Banerjee of being "an agent of the Wilderness Society."

Banerjee, a former Los Alamos physicist and outings chair for the Southern New Mexico Group of the Sierra Club, says that’s nonsense. "If anything," he says, "I am an agent of nature." —Paul Rauber

More Information
To see Banerjee’s photographs–with both their original and censored captions–go to Or visit Banerjee’s own site at An uncensored display of Banerjee’s arctic photographs will open at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences on September 13.

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