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Part of the Science Museum’s Atmosphere exhibition, which Shell sponsored. Photo: The Science Museum.
Part of the Science Museum’s Atmosphere exhibition, which Shell sponsored. Photo: The Science Museum.
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Shell leant on Science Museum to influence climate programme

Terry Macalister / the Guardian

1st June 2015

Emails released by the Science Museum show that Shell pressed its case to Museum staff to deny NGOs the opportunity to open up a debate on the company's operations in connection with an exhibition it had sponsored on waste and climate change, writes Terry Macalister.

[Redacted] and I have some concerns on this exhibition as it creates an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell's operations ... we need to ensure we do not proactively open up a debate on the topic.

Shell tried to influence the presentation of a climate change programme it was sponsoring at the Science Museum in London, internal documents seen by the Guardian show.

The Anglo-Dutch oil group raised concerns with the museum that one part of the project "creates an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell's operations."

The company also wanted to know whether a particular symposium at the museum was 'invite only' - as that would ensure "we do not proactively open up a debate on the topic [of Shell's operations]".

The concerns are raised in a series of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and once again raise awkward questions about the influence of fossil fuel companies over Britain's most valued cultural institutions.

"These emails reveal that the Science Museum is a significant cog in Shell's propaganda machine", said Chris Garrard, from the anti-oil sponsorship campaign group BP or not BP?

Shell - the 'responsible' oil company that's set to drill in the Arctic

Shell is keen to present itself as a responsible company that is trying to tackle climate change but critics say its commitment to tar sands, deep water wells and Arctic exploration are at odds with this stance.

The emails, which have all names redacted, follow the decision by the oil company to become a principal sponsor of the Atmosphere, Exploring Climate Science gallery and the extended Climate Changing programme at the Science Museum.

The Atmosphere gallery was designed to deepen public understanding of global warming but Shell's own climate change adviser - former oil trader David Hone - made recommendations on what should be included.

Emails show the close relationship between the Science Museum and Shell with the two discussing how they should react to expected criticism from Greenpeace following a Guardian story in October 2014.

In that story, the Science Museum's former director Chris Rapley criticised Greenpeace's successful campaign to make Lego drop its partnership with Shell.

In another communication with the Science Museum dated 9 December 2014, a Shell staff member gives what they call a "heads up" on a Reuters story reporting that Shell's Arctic drilling contractor, Noble, has pleaded guilty to eight charges of pollution and poor record keeping.

'Kindly keep out the riff-raff!'

But the most damaging email is dated 8 May 2014 when a Shell employee receives an update from the Science Museum and replies:

"Regards the rubbish archive project [an interactive exhibition examining waste in the context of climate change], [redacted] and I have some concerns on this exhibition particularly as it creates an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell's operations."

It goes on: "Could you please share more information with us on the symposium event planned for September? As you know we receive a great deal of interest around our art sponsorships so need to ensure we do not proactively open up a debate on the topic. Will it be an invite only event?"

And it ends: "Regarding the gallery update, can I check whether you have touched base with David Hone to see if he would like to participate in the content refresh?"

The Science Museum insisted on Sunday that there could be no question of compromise because final editorial control had been retained and judgment exercised by the curator alone. It has also published this web page to assuage public concerns.

Ian Blatchford, the museum's director, said: "The Science Museum has a long-standing relationship with Shell, including most recently sponsorship of Atmosphere, our climate science gallery, which provides our visitors with accurate, up-to-date information on what is known, what is uncertain, and what is not known about this important subject.

"The gallery has been hugely popular since it opened four years ago and has now been visited by more than 3 million people. As with all of our exhibitions and galleries, the editorial vision and control sits with our curatorial team."

'Our shared interest in inspiring young people about science'

The Science Museum said it was normal for a sponsor to make suggestions or raise questions but that did not mean action resulted. Blatchford said: "I can confirm that not a single change to an exhibition resulted from these email exchanges."

A Shell spokesperson said her company and the Science Museum had a long-standing relationship, based on shared interests such as the need to inspire young people about science.

"Alongside the many other scientists, academics and educators on the advisory panel for Atmosphere, David Hone, Shell's climate change adviser, has been consulted with regards to gallery content", the spokesperson said.

"We have occasionally made wider suggestions regarding the Climate Changing programme but at all times the Science Museum retained full editorial control over its plans and content."

Garrard said he was concerned that the close relationship between big oil and the Science Museum was set to continue with BP sponsoring a forthcoming exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

A recent book argued that fossil fuel companies were sponsoring the arts around the world on an "epidemic" scale as a cynical PR strategy to improve their reputation.

 


 

Terry Macalister is energy editor of the Guardian. He has been employed at the paper and website for 12 years and previously worked for the Independent and other national titles.

See the email correspondence (PDF file).

Join the Guardian's 'keep it in the Ground' climate change campaign in urging the world's two biggest charitable funds to move their money out of fossil fuels.

This article was originally published by the Guardian. It is republished by kind permission via the Guardian Environment Network.

 

 

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