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Los Angeles Times
April 29, 2003

Heat Turned Up on Arctic Exhibit?

A photographer who spent 14 months in the wildlife refuge says his
Smithsonian show was scaled back because of political pressure.

by Elizabeth Shogren

WASHINGTON - Subhankar Banerjee spent a grueling 14 months in the
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge taking photographs of nuzzling polar
bears and slain whales, of graceful icebergs and vibrant Northern
Lights, chronicling the remote region in all seasons.

Some of his photos, which have been compiled in a book, found their
way to the Smithsonian Institution. It was so impressed that it
scheduled a show of his photos in a prime location for special
exhibits - next to the soaring rotunda on the first floor of the
National Museum of Natural History. Banerjee was working with museum
staff members on captions quoting him and famous visitors to the
Arctic plain on the region's grandeur.

That was as recently as last month. Just weeks before the exhibit's
scheduled opening Friday, the Smithsonian moved it downstairs to a
room behind the cafeteria.

What happened? Smithsonian officials say they decided the photos
would be displayed better downstairs. Banerjee believes his book,
published this month, got caught up in the deadly crosscurrents of
Washington politics.

The Bush administration and Alaska's congressional delegation have
been vigorously pressing Congress for authority to drill for oil and
gas in the Arctic refuge.

Last month, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) stood on the Senate floor
in front of an enlargement of a Banerjee photo of a polar bear as she
made the case against drilling. She held up his photos, referred to
their "breathtaking" beauty and urged a visit to the Smithsonian
exhibit.

Within weeks, Banerjee learned his exhibit was moving downstairs, the
captions replaced by simple one-line descriptions of the photo
subjects. He said he was told by a senior museum official that after
Boxer used his book, "there was pressure to even cancel the show, but
the show was saved."

"I was not told who applied the pressure or where it came from," said
Banerjee, a 35-year-old freelance photographer and former physicist
for Boeing Co.

Banerjee said his exhibit traded places with a photo essay of South
Korean immigrants that had already opened downstairs.

Banerjee said he had spent a great deal of time in the museum and
believed many more people would have seen his photos if they had been
exhibited on the first floor.

Randall Kremer, spokesman for the museum, said no pressure had been
put on the museum to change the location of the exhibit. He added
that the new location was a high-traffic area with good lighting.

"Any changes made were part of the normal review process," Kremer
said. "The exhibition is being presented in the way we now decided
because we think it's the most effective way to show these
photographs."

The decision to change the captions, however, reflected the museum's
policy of staying out of politics, Kremer said.

Banerjee, who grew up in India and came to this country after
graduate school, survived temperatures of 50 degrees below zero and
blinding blizzards while in the Arctic.

The March 20 draft of the exhibit's introduction, written by Banerjee
and the Smithsonian's staff, included a quote from former President
Carter: "It will be a grand triumph for America if we can preserve
the Arctic Refuge in its pure, untrammeled state." By April 3, a new
introduction omitted Carter's remark.

Kremer explained that the museum decided against the lengthier
captions because "they were a lot more wordy and detailed than we
normally prefer for a fine-art photography exhibition, and some of
the texts did appear to be bordering on advocacy, which is something
we don't do."

Banerjee said he and his publisher decided to go public with their
complaints only after his publisher received two letters from the
Smithsonian's lawyers. The letters said the Smithsonian Institution's
registered trademark had been used in the book jacket without
authorization and demanded the publisher insert a correction in every
book that had been printed and remove all references to the
Smithsonian Institution in future editions.

The Alaska Wilderness League, a conservation advocacy group,
distributed copies of Banerjee's book to senators who were wavering
on the drilling issue. It also alerted Sen. Richard Durbin of
Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the Senate government oversight
subcommittee.

Durbin asked the museum for an explanation.

"I don't think these decisions are made by accident," Durbin said in
an interview. "I think someone has made a decision that they don't
want visitors to the museum to see the reality of the Arctic refuge."

"What saddens me is this was the first-ever documentation of this
place," Banerjee said. "This book has so much scientific and
educational material, beyond any of the politics. I hope that part
does not get lost in the political hoopla."