The Science Museum Group (SMG) has defended signing a “non-disparagement” agreement with the oil company Shell, the controversial sponsor of the Science Museum's Our Future Planet exhibition on carbon capture technology.
The so-called “gagging clause” was part of a contract between the two parties obtained by the anti-oil campaign group Culture Unstained under the Freedom of Information Act, which was reported on Channel 4 News this week.
The contract stipulated that the SMG and its trustees should take care not to “make any statement or issue any publicity” that could be seen as “discrediting or damaging the goodwill or reputation of the sponsor” during the term of the deal.
A spokesman for the SMG said the wording was “part of a standard, reciprocal commercial clause that appears in most sponsorship agreements the museum drafts”.
The spokesman dismissed claims that the clause could have had any impact on the curatorial independence of the exhibition, saying it was signed after content work had concluded.
Jonathan Newby, who is acting director and chief executive of the SMG while Ian Blatchford is on study leave, said: “We entirely reject the unsubstantiated claim that our curators were in any way inhibited in carrying out their vital role in an expert, independent and thorough manner.”
A spokeswoman for Culture Unstained said the wording of the clause was “highly problematic” and prevented the museum’s staff from speaking openly about the impact of the oil company's activities.
She said: “This clause may be regarded as standard and uncontroversial by the SMG and some other organisations but, in this setting, it is highly problematic. It essentially creates a 'chilling effect', where museum staff must refrain from speaking openly about the reality of Shell’s activities because it could be seen as damaging the company’s goodwill or reputation.
“This is a particular problem due to the contested nature of Shell’s business operations and the fact it is sponsoring an exhibition about climate change – the exact area in which its operations and plans are so controversial and where there is a very active debate.”
Earth scientist Aaron Thierry, a member of Scientists for Extinction Rebellion, said: “The SMG's decision to give Shell the legitimacy of sponsoring this climate exhibition while stifling the possibility of free debate about its negative impacts is profoundly unethical. No museum should put its staff in this position.”
The museum has also come under criticism from prominent climate campaigners.
Legal blogger David Allen Green said the non-disparagement clause was an “unwise decision” that had turned into a “reputational disaster” for both parties.
He wrote: “Shell was contracting with a public body in a highly sensitive political and media context. There was a strong chance – indeed a virtual certainty – that at some point the terms of the sponsorship agreement would enter the public domain.
“And when this happened, that the reputational fall-out would be far worse than any disparagement that the clause itself would ever manage.”
Further documents obtained by Culture Unstained show that the SMG came close to signing a sponsorship deal with the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a group of 12 oil company CEOs, including those of US oil giants Exxon and Chevron, as well as state oil companies Saudi Aramco and China National Petroleum Company.
The OGCI was offered a range of promotional opportunities and contact with the exhibition's curatorial team as part of the deal.
The SMG stepped back from the partnership after one of the oil companies fell short of its standard for sponsors, the Transition Pathway Initiative tool, which measures “companies’ preparedness for the transition to a low-carbon economy.”
Climate campaigners have criticised the SMG's reliance on the tool, saying its standard is far lower than institution's own target to reduce its emissions in line with the 1.5°C set out in the 2015 Paris agreement.
The SMG has strenuously defended its partnerships with fossil fuel companies. Newby said: “Across the world, we need to see a rapid transition to a low carbon economy and our own museums are committed to net zero by 2033. Energy companies need to play a big part in that change and we regard the blanket approach demanded by some campaigners of severing all relationships with energy companies as unproductive.”
Museums Association (MA) director Sharon Heal said museums should refer to the Code of Ethics when considering sponsorship arrangements.
She said: “The MA Code of Ethics supports ethical decision making in all areas of museum activity. It states that museums should provide and generate accurate information for and with the public and support freedom of speech and debate.
“It also advises that museums should carefully consider offers of financial support from commercial organisations and seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with those of the museum. We would recommend that museums exercise due diligence in understanding the ethical standards of commercial partners in order to maintain public trust and integrity in all museum activities.”