London’s Science Museum—formerly the National Museum of Science & Industry—has ended a sponsorship deal with Royal Dutch Shell because the oil major tried to influence the direction of a climate change exhibit.
A story in The Guardian said the museum responded to a Freedom of Information request, saying it “does not have plans to renew its existing sponsorship deal or initiate a new deal or funding agreement with Royal Dutch Shell.” The sponsorship deal will lapse in December.
Former museum director Chris Rapley, who approved the five-year Shell deal, did not comment, but he has defended the partnership, asserting the museum needed the funding and that disengagement from oil companies was “too simplistic” because society still relied on their products.
Critics had attacked the choice of a fossil fuel company as a funder for the museum’s Atmosphere gallery on climate science. They said emails showed that Shell sought to influence the program. However, current and former directors of the museum rejected the charges, saying no curatorial changes had been made on Shell’s behalf.
Ian Blatchford, the museum’s current director, defended the sponsorship, telling The Guardian: “I know some people will have a broader disagreement with our decision to form partnerships with corporations such as Shell. I respect their right to hold that opinion, but I fundamentally disagree.” The Science Museum said it had not changed its position: the five-year deal was simply coming to an end. The museum did not rule out future partnerships with Shell.
“Shell should never have been allowed to sponsor an exhibition on climate science. It’s no secret that Shell relentlessly lobbies against measures to tackle climate change – but the Science Museum went ahead with this ill-advised deal nonetheless,” said Chris Garrard, of the group BP or not BP? The group, which filed the FOI request and found out the deal would not be renewed, called on the museum to end its relationship with BP as well. Garrard said that letting the sponsorship lapse “is a step in the right direction, but the museum needs to stop legitimizing the fossil fuel industry completely by ditching its deal with BP too.”
Shell was a sponsor of the museum’s “Launchpad” space from 2007-2010 and then became a sponsor of the climate science exhibition, “Atmosphere,” for 2010-2015, in return for £200,000 ($304,500) per year. That amount represented only about 0.00025% of the Science Museum’s income for that period. But Shell’s emails to the museum asked for a discussion event on climate change to be made by invitation only, in order to avoid criticism of its operations, and for the wording of some exhibition labels to be altered.
Through a spokesperson, Shell said: “Shell and the Science Museum have a longstanding relationship, based on shared interests such as the need to inspire young people about science. Shell will continue to be a supporter of the museum and we look forward to maintaining our strong relationship into the future.”
So what gives? In the FOI, the museum says it’s not going to do a new sponsorship deal with Shell, but subsequent statements from the oil company and the museum indicate otherwise. Funding in a time of austerity in the UK is a touchy issue, but they should at least get their stories straight.