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Coyne, Totten, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History: "Stake Your Claim"

This is starting to resemble a wonderful Monty Python sketch, "Stake Your Claim." This afternoon, as I noted earlier, erstwhile University of Chicago evolutionary scientist and current busy blogger and animal fancier Jerry Coyne was exulting that his project to obtain the erasure of an offending sign at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History had borne fruit.

Coyne, citing a reporter for Southern California public radio station KPCC, triumphantly said the sign had been effaced. The text of the sign said:

"The Nature Lab is a gift to Los Angeles to celebrate all of God's creatures and enable NHM to broaden our understanding of the natural world through the process of scientific discovery." Anonymous Donor -- 2013

Initially the reporter, Sanden Totten, indicated that the museum merely wished to clarify that the sentiment was that of the anonymous donor, not the museum. Thus by implication the sign would be somehow rephrased and presumably restored to clarify the attribution. How the attribution could be clearer (for those who understand the grammatical significance of quotation marks) was left uncertain.

Now Totten has changed his claim, as Coyne points out in an UPDATE to his own post of today. (No, he's not now saying he can burrow through an elephant.) Coyne presents Totten's revised post at the KPCC website as itself an "update," but in fact it's a significant revision. Whereas previously from Totten's account it appeared that the museum would only modestly rework the sign, now it seems otherwise. They may even be talking about giving the money back, if Totten is not mistaken.

NHM [Natural History Museum] director of communication Kristin Friedrich said many of the museum's curatorial staff members shared similar concerns with management [i.e., similar to Coyne's] after the quote appeared in early December.

On Monday, the museum released a statement saying it removed the quote:

"Upon further reflection and after discussion with our staff, and in conversation with the donor, the Museum has determined that acknowledging donors by including personal statements in such a manner has the potential to cause confusion."

Friedrich added that the museum has a statement posted on its website underscoring its support for the theory of evolutionary biology. The statement asserts "evolutionary biology is fundamental to understanding biological diversity and is critical for both scientific research and museums."

However, former NHM Board Member Miriam Schulman says the incident points to a broader issue of the institution's acceptance of large donations from people she characterized as having "anti-evolutionary beliefs."

"It's always dangerous when you accept money from people who have an agenda that runs counter to the mission of the museum," Schulman said. 

NHM's Kristin Friedrich responded that she was unaware of Schulman's concerns.

"I've worked here eight years, and it's not an issue to me or something that's been on the uptick," she said.

The museum is in talks with the anonymous donor about the matter, and it is unclear whether it will have to return the money.

This story has been updated.

Wow, this is extremely embarrassing and damaging to the museum. Again, if the account is true. According to Totten/Coyne, the institution accepted a generous donation from a source that is both charitable and modest -- not wishing to make his or her name known. They then turned around and disrespected the same donor's apparent views on evolution, bowing to pressure from Darwin activists, by, evidently, providing Totten the information that giving back the money might or might not be an option.

Meanwhile, former board member Miriam Schulman bad-mouths the donor far more directly for holding supposed "anti-evolutionary beliefs" and pursuing an allegedly "dangerous...agenda." I don't see why perceiving purpose and meaning in life's long evolutionary history makes you "anti-evolution," but that's another matter.

Whether L.A. County's Natural History Museum does or does not decide to treat its donor in a gracious manner is the business of that institution -- a museum, by the way, that I enjoyed many times as a child growing up in the Los Angeles area. Oh, and of course it's the business of the taxpayers that support the NHM.

Either way, for Coyne the victory is, as I said before, a pathetic one. While the American Dawkins remains in full flight from a fair debate about the issues of evolution and intelligent design, does the man really have nothing better to do with his time?