Science Museum courted sponsorship from oil companies

Contradictory ties between the Science Museum Group and major oil companies have been exposed via a series of Freedom of Information requests, including connections between the Science Museum’s ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition and Shell.

A shell petrol station sign, viewed from an upwards angle
Green World

Yesterday (29 July), it was revealed that the Science Museum Group (SMG) signed a ‘gagging clause’ with Shell, as well as courting 12 other oil companies.

The information was unearthed through a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made by campaign and research organisation Culture Unstained, and scientist Alex Penson.

These revealed that SMG, which operates several museums including the Science Museum in London, signed a contract committing ‘not to damage the goodwill or reputation’ of its sponsor Shell, despite the major controversy surrounding the company’s climate impacts. 

The announcement that Shell was to sponsor the Science Museum’s ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition was met with major backlash from scientists, exhibition contributors, and the wider public.

Youth climate strikers UKSCN London were particularly unhappy to discover that the museum had included placards within the Shell-sponsored exhibition from the London youth strikes in March 2019 without the strike organisers’ knowledge or consent.

Last month, the protest group was met with police force when staging an overnight protest and 24-hour livestream broadcast against the sponsorship deal.

Culture Unstained’s research additionally found that Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, also sought sponsorship from the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OCGI), an influential group of oil and gas CEOs accused of being a vehicle for greenwashing.

The group, which includes figureheads from fossil fuel giants Exxon and Chevron and state oil companies Saudi Aramco and China National Petroleum Company, was offered a range of promotional opportunities by the museum.

Additionally, according to the findings, OCGI was given the opportunity to be put in direct contact with the exhibition’s curatorial team, apparently to give input on its specific contents. 

However, the organisation eventually walked away from the deal over the record of just one of the oil companies. According to Culture Unstained, this, along with its dismissal of Shell’s human rights and environmental record, calls SMG’s ‘due diligence’ process into question.

This process uses the Transition Pathway Initiative’s rating tool – a tool for investors to measure how prepared companies are ‘for the transition to a low-carbon economy’, not whether their business plans are in line with Paris climate targets.

Shell is currently facing intense scrutiny over its plans to continue extracting oil and gas, in spite of warnings issued by the International Energy Agency and climate scientists, who assert that investment in oil and gas exploration must be halted in order to hit Paris targets.

Jess Worth, Co-director of Culture Unstained, said: “What kind of science museum doesn’t base its decisions on climate science but backs Big Oil’s last-ditch attempts to protect its profits and reputation instead?

“As we witness floods and wildfires across the world, it’s morally bankrupt for the Science Museum Group to suggest Shell and other oil companies are on the right decarbonisation path. 

“These companies have repeatedly got failing grades for their performance on climate change, but somehow the museum has found one of the only examiners that will give them a pass. 

“The only way they can do that is by not scoring them on whether their business plans are actually aligned with keeping the world below 1.5°C. 

“The decision by senior management to then sign a gagging clause to protect Shell puts other staff in a very difficult position and this should be of great concern to the museum sector as a whole.