WASHINGTON (AP) A photo exhibit showing untouched wilderness in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge opened Friday at the Smithsonian Institution but not exactly as earlier planned.
Instead of the prime exhibit space slated off the spacious, main-floor rotunda of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, the 48-photo exhibit is being displayed in a basement hallway, behind an escalator.
And instead of expansive descriptions the photographer, Subhankar Banerjee, prepared for captions, the photos have just terse descriptions of each photo's subject and location.
Banerjee, a Calcutta, India-born physicist and freelance photographer who now lives in Bellevue, Wash., is thrilled his pictures are being displayed, but he laments that the exhibit was changed after getting caught up in Washington politics.
During Senate debate on the Bush administration's plan for drilling in the Arctic refuge, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., held up one of Banerjee's photos taken during a 14-month stay there and referred to the area's beauty in her arguments against drilling. She urged her colleagues to visit the Smithsonian exhibit.
A short time later, Banerjee says he got a call from a senior official at the Smithsonian, saying changes were being made.
Specifically because it was perceived that my work has become political,'' he said Friday.
Banerjee, 35, is disappointed at the new location which he calls a flat hallway'' and frets that fewer people will see the exhibit. Worse, he says those who do see it may not understand it as well without the extended captions.
A lengthy paean to the beauty and elegance of a snow-covered peak, for instance, now reads, McCall Glacier, Brooks Range.'' Another caption that described the migration pattern of a buff-breasted sandpiper, and the risk of habitat destruction, now simply identifies the bird and its location.
Robert Sullivan, associate director of public programs for the Smithsonian, said he made the changes after consulting with the museum's exhibit review committee.
Sullivan was the museum official who first pushed to display Banerjee's photos. He called the photos stunning and said Banerjee's work had a painterly quality to it. We are privileged to have this work hang in our museum.''
The problem, Sullivan said, is that the exhibit got politicized'' when the book on which it is based was used on the Senate floor.
Boxer and Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have written letters to Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, expressing dismay at the changes. Durbin said he will ask Smithsonian officials at a Senate hearing next week whether any political pressure was brought.
In a written statement Friday, the Smithsonian denied that. There was no influence by outside political or governmental representatives to alter the content or location of the exhibition,'' the statement said.
The captions reflect the museum's standard practice in presenting fine arts exhibitions,'' it said.
Sullivan denied a claim by some environmental advocates that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska and a leading proponent of Arctic drilling, had pushed for the change.
Nobody approached me. There was no outside pressure,'' Sullivan said. We felt as a federal institution, we can't be seen as advocating for the passage or defeat of any legislation.''
As for the captions, he said the original versions proposed by Banerjee were overly expressive, even sentimental.'' Sullivan said, I told him, 'Let the picture speak for itself.'''
The exhibit will be on display through Sept. 2. A photo essay of Korean immigrants, which had already opened in the downstairs space, is being displayed in the space once slotted for the Arctic refuge exhibit.
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