Updated at 5:06 p.m.
Natural-history museums are research centers, public attractions, and stores of natural treasures. But many of them are also event spaces that command a hefty price for weddings, award ceremonies, gala dinners, and conferences. These two roles can seem like Janus’s faces: inseparable, but looking away from each other. Often, that’s not a problem. Sometimes, it very much is.
The American Museum of Natural History came under fire this Thursday, when news emerged that on May 14 it would serve as the venue for a black-tie gala dinner honoring Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s newly elected, ultranationalist president. Since 1970, the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce has bestowed a person-of-the-year award upon two people—one Brazilian and one American—for being “particularly instrumental in forging closer ties between the two nations.” For at least the past two years, the honorees have picked up their accolades beneath the gaze of the AMNH’s blue whale. And this year’s planned event would have attracted little notice outside the international business community, had it not involved Bolsonaro.
Elected in October 2018 and in office since January, Bolsonaro quickly moved to undermine protections for the Amazon rainforest, open it up for agriculture and mining, and wrest control of land from indigenous communities. He has compared those communities to chicken-pox spots, promised to forcibly integrate them, and praised America’s historical extermination of native peoples. He recently froze almost half of Brazil’s science spending. His statements have frequently been racist, misogynistic, and homophobic.