A scientist who worked to the Science Museum Group’s (SMG) Our Future Planet exhibition has criticised the institution for failing to tell contributors that it would be sponsored by the oil giant Shell.
Emma Sayer, who works on ecosystems ecology at Lancaster University, said she would not have chosen to work on the exhibition, which is at London's Science Museum, had she known about the sponsorship deal in advance.
The SMG has been criticised by environmental campaigners for making Shell a sponsor on the display, which is the first in the UK to explore carbon capture technology.
Sayer contributed to the section on carbon capture in forests, featuring in a video and supplying materials. She said she was excited to be part of the project and makes clear that she does not hold the curators she worked with responsible for decisions made “higher up”.
Sayer believes the museum should have been “more upfront” with contributors from the beginning about the possibility of fossil fuel sponsorship.
“Matching the credentials of the sponsors to the subject matter of the exhibition is quite important,” she said. “It never even occurred to me that the Science Museum would team up with Shell on a carbon exhibition. I didn’t ask but I also wasn’t told - there was nothing in the release form.”
Sayer, who carries out regular public engagement work, said she has turned down events and projects in the past due to their links with fossil fuel and nuclear power companies. She learnt that Shell was a sponsor on 15 April, the day the exhibition opened for a preview, via a press release sent to contributors.
“When I found out I was very embarrassed,” she said. “I don’t like having my name associated with Shell. It’s a great exhibition but it’s just such a shame that it’s tainted by oil sponsorship.”
The SMG has strenuously defended the partnership with Shell, saying it is “committed to working with funders who are also on a journey to decarbonise”.
Sayer told Museums Journal that she does not believe the oil company has done enough to demonstrate this commitment. “I would have fewer concerns about working with an oil company if their actions actually matched their claims, but I just don’t see it with Shell.”
Sayer said it was ultimately the government's responsibility to fund museums properly so they would not be dependent on sponsorship. “If our museums were well-funded this wouldn't be happening,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the SMG said the group is transparent about its long-standing relationship with a limited number of energy companies. She said contributors had been approached between autumn 2019 and early 2021, before Shell became a sponsor of the exhibition
SMG chief executive Ian Blatchford said: “Climate change is the defining issue of this century and when we reopen the Science Museum, visitors can look forward to lots of public programming engaging with this issue, including new exhibition Our Future Planet.
“My message to anyone who has misgivings about any aspect of this exhibition is come and visit this timely show and make up your own mind.”