After a year of living quietly on Vashon, Beka Economopoulos and Jason Jones have a spotlight trained on their longtime work at the intersection of art and activism — as well as their recent arrival on the island — with the announcement that they are the recipients of a prestigious $100,000 grant for their work.
The award, announced in mid-January by Creative Capital, a New York-based funder, was made to the couple and their collaborator Judith LeBlanc to develop a major exhibition called “The Natural History Museum Presents: The Supreme Court of Red National History.”
The exhibition and multi-day art happening will take place inside an elaborate replica of the U.S. Supreme Court chambers, built by a Dutch artist, Jonas Staal, where Indigenous leaders, scientists and natural history scholars will gather as accusers in a people’s tribunal, examining natural history and its colonial legacy.
And while that all might sound high-minded, what the couple actually does is quite literally down to earth: they aim to infiltrate and intervene in the work of behemoth natural history and science museums in order to bring environmental justice and climate concerns into sharper focus across North America.
On a recent rainy morning inside their cozy home near Vashon’s town center, Economopoulos and Jones explained how larger museums play a crucial role in explaining both science and culture to Americans.
“Poll after poll shows that they are among the most trusted sources of information in society, and in a time of extreme polarization, these are spaces that are in red, blue and purple counties across the country,” said Economopoulos. “They see more visitors annually than sporting events and theme parks combined, and they should and could be doing more to connect history to the present and talk about what’s happening in the world in the context of a crisis.”
According to Economopoulos, museums should act not as shrines to a civilization in decline, but rather, as agents of change.
Jones and Economopoulos’ current efforts are part of their involvement in Not An Alternative, an activist art collective they co-founded in 2004 while living in New York, with the aim of building a more equitable and just society through cultural organizing and creative advocacy. The couple was also deeply involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.
In 2014, they launched The Natural History Museum, a traveling museum described by Economopoulos as a “Trojan Horse strategy to get inside the museum sector and try to transform it from within.”
Using their mobile museum — which owns a rolling exhibit space made out of a tricked-out airport shuttle bus — as a way to gain entrée to museum conventions and professional associations, the couple soon saw their work garner media attention and viral traction.
According to their website, they teamed up with 150 top scientists and Nobel Laureates in 2015 to release a letter urging fellow museums to cut all ties to fossil fuel interests. Eventually, they persuaded nine museums to divest from fossil fuels, drop fossil fuel sponsors, or implement ethical funding policies. These efforts also led David Koch, an oil mogul and top funder of climate science denial, to step down from the board of New York’s American Museum of Natural History after serving for 23 years.
The internal dynamics of museums make them capable of progressive changes, as well as open to scheduling traveling exhibits by the Natural History Museum, said Jones. One such exhibit included a re-imagined natural history diorama depicting a polar bear traversing a landscape despoiled by a Koch Industries oil pipeline.
“What we found, through going to their conventions, was that there was an incredible readiness — among the staff, the directors, the visitors, the scientists who work there and the Indigenous populations who were represented there — to take a stronger position, but it was difficult because all those groups exist in isolation,” he said.
But the push to urge institutions to divest from fossil fuel investments hasn’t been the couple’s only viral moment. In the heady days of their participation in Occupy Wall Street, their daughter, now almost eight years old, was hailed online as an “Occupy Baby” when Economopoulos gave birth to her in a New York taxicab after going into early labor at an Occupy meeting. Jones filmed the whole ordeal, and the footage wound up online and in the news.
Jones and Economopoulos both said their 2018 move to Vashon was prompted in part by the desire for their daughter to have a childhood different from the one she had experienced in New York.
“We went from where she had recess [at school] three times a week, to where she has it three times a day,” Economopoulos said.
But there was also another reason for the move.
Almost all of the accomplishments of The Natural History Museum have been achieved, in recent years, through partnerships with Pacific Northwest tribal nations, perhaps most notably the Lummi Nation.
“The Native nations in the Pacific Northwest are so strong in their culture and tradition, and with their treaty rights they have been leading movements that have successfully defeated an onslaught of fossil fuel expansion,” Economopoulos said. “We felt there was a lot to learn out here.”
These associations, said Economopoulos and Jones, were the most important impetus for moving to Vashon — a place recommended to them by islander Shelley Means, who works for Native Organizers Alliance (NOA), a national training and grassroots organizing network they have partnered with as well.
“It was clear that being in proximity, so we can have a closer working relationship and face-to-face meetings, would make us better collaborators with the Lummi,” said Jones.
Jones and Economopoulos began working with the Lummi in 2016 to develop “Kwel’ Hoy: We Draw The Line,” a traveling Natural History Museum exhibition about Lummi totem pole journeys. The exhibition debuted at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh in 2017 and will travel to other venues. Leaders from Lummi Nation, Yakama Nation, The Tulalip Tribes, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and Yankton Sioux Tribe were all involved in the exhibition as co-curators and interpreters/storytellers.
Another exhibition, “Kwel’ Hoy: Many Struggles, One Front,” was developed with Lummi Nation and the Ramapough Lenape Nation in 2018, and featured at the Watershed Institute in New Jersey.
A third exhibition, developed with the Lummi, was “Whale People: Protectors of the Sea” — it transported a 3,000-pound totem pole to the Florida Museum of Natural History, to raise awareness of the plight of orca whales. This year, it will tour venues in the Pacific Northwest, with a design that is being updated by Vashon artist Oi Durahim, who is Indonesian.
In 2019, The Natural History Museum’s core team member Julian Brave Noisecat, who is a member of the Secwepemc/St’at’imc Nation, produced the Alcatraz Canoe Journey — an Indigenous-led canoe journey on the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz Island, and a programming series at Bay Area museums.
The Museum also organized “Power Beyond Extraction,” a programming series at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden and the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, timed to coincide with a fracking industry conference in town that was keynoted by President Donald Trump. This series featured leaders from Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Seneca Nation, as well as former miners and labor organizers.
And last December, the Museum won a multi-year National Geographic grant to develop a traveling exhibition with the Tiny House Warriors of Secwepemc Nation and members of Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Vancouver, BC, about the Indigenous-led fight against the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline.
The Museum’s team also includes Karina Yager, who is a Latina, a climate scientist affiliated with NASA and an anthropologist with Quechu heritage. She serves as the organization’s education director. Steve Lyons, an art historian and artist, is the museum’s research and writing director.
Together with these partners and team members, and from their new house on Vashon, Economopoulos and Jones hope to continue to make waves in the world of art and culture.
“In the midst of calling for these institutions to decolonize, we’re aiming to imagine that there is something in the objects in museums, in the desires of the workers and the visitors, and in the land under the museum and in the water under the land, that is something far more powerful than the suggestions that these objects are dead and captured,” Economopoulos said.