Science Museum defends oil sponsorship after XR occupation - Museums Association

Science Museum defends oil sponsorship after XR occupation

Climate group held overnight sit-in to protest museum’s partnerships with fossil fuel companies
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Eleanor Mills
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XR protesting the Science Museum's ongoing Shell sponsorship last weekend
XR protesting the Science Museum's ongoing Shell sponsorship last weekend Photo courtesy Extinction Rebellion

The Science Museum Group (SMG) has defended its stance on fossil fuel sponsorship after Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate activists staged a bank holiday protest at London's Science Museum.

Campaigners occupied the building overnight on 29 August, with some glueing or locking themselves to railings, in protest against the organisation’s ongoing sponsorship deal with the fossil fuel company Shell.

On leaving the museum the following morning, XR protestors handed Science Museum staff a letter outlining its ongoing points of contention, namely “the ongoing sponsorship of the fossil fuel companies, Shell, BP and Equinor, in particular Shell sponsoring the current Our Future Planet exhibition on carbon capture and storage”. 

The letter said: “Sponsoring arts and culture makes it easier for these companies to get away with their pollution, lobbying against climate action and human rights abuses and, by accepting their money, the Science Museum is helping Shell, BP and Equinor to do it. 

“BP’s long-running deals with Tate and the Edinburgh Festival ended in 2016, and in 2019 both the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Galleries Scotland announced an end to their BP partnerships. Around the same time, the National Theatre ended its partnership with Shell and last year both the Southbank Centre and BFI parted company with Shell. By clinging on to its oil sponsors, the Science Museum is looking increasingly out of touch with the rest of the cultural sector.

The letter commended museum staff for their “professionalism and kindness” at what XR said is a “particularly difficult time for the cultural sector”. 

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It said: “We apologise that you have been put in this position but we are simply following the United Nations Code Red for humanity, the urgent call in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for action as well as from the International Energy Agency to stop all new fossil fuel exploration. It is now too late to stop some of the changes, but we can now fight to save every fraction of a degree of warming; as such we need to make fossil fuel sponsorship as toxic as tobacco.

“We are aware that communication with us outside or inside the museum is difficult, however, please feel free to contact us on our fully confidential website where staff can whistleblow for the planet.”

In response to the protest, the director of the SMG, Ian Blatchford published a public statement on the museum website.

He said: “Our museums take our responsibility to engage the public around the science of climate change seriously, alongside our commitment to reduce the organisation’s impact on the planet on our journey to net zero by 2033.

“As a cultural institution, we also have a responsibility to facilitate peaceful protest during opening hours, while safeguarding the right of visitors, staff and local residents to feel welcome and safe in and around our buildings.

Blatchford continued: “Over recent years our team has calmly facilitated protests outside and within the museum, allowing people to have their say – often over the course of many hours.

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“The demands on my colleagues on these occasions are considerable, as we have to make sure the protests don’t get in the way of a treasured day out for our visitors who want to enjoy our free and inspiring spaces as well as looking after the health and safety of everyone in the building.

“Yesterday, the museum team facilitated six hours of protests in the museum during opening hours. Regrettably some protesters refused to depart when the museum closed and ignored repeated requests to leave throughout the evening, with some attaching themselves to railings with chains or gluing their hands together.

“Following discussions with the police, and after receiving assurances from the protesters that they would leave peacefully at 7am, a decision was made to take no further action during the night. I would like to publicly thank the museum’s team for handling this disruptive situation with great professionalism.”

Blatchford outlined the SMG’s position on sponsorship, saying: “I’ve written at length about why the executive team and the board of trustees disagree with activists’ calls for a blanket approach of severing ties with energy companies, but here’s a quick summary of our view:

  • The major energy companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions to the urgent global challenge of climate change
  • We believe the right approach is to engage, debate and challenge companies, governments and individuals to do more to make the global economy less carbon intensive
  • Through research and technological innovation in areas such as carbon capture, fuel efficiency and alternative energy such as wind, solar and tidal, energy companies have a major role to play, and we must continue to challenge them to show more leadership to deliver on this potential.
  • We achieve public good with the sponsorship we receive from our partners
  • In all such partnerships, the Science Museum Group retains editorial control.

“The final point about editorial control is central to the work of our curatorial teams. Some activists have made unsubstantiated claims questioning the editorial independence of our exhibitions, based on a standard, reciprocal commercial clause that appears in sponsorship contracts the museum drafts.

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“We entirely reject the false allegation that curators of Our Future Planet were in any way inhibited in carrying out their vital role in an expert, independent and thorough manner. And we invite everyone to come and see this excellent exhibition.”

A spokeswoman from XR said: “Several groups of Extinction Rebellion were in the museum on Sunday afternoon [29 August] to engage with the public. This was facilitated by the staff despite police presence.

“At 5pm we organised a procession through the museum attended by around 200 people finishing with a die-in in the entrance hall. At 6pm we told the museum that we will occupy the museum for the night and 68 of us slept on the floor. To start with, seven of us were locked and four glued around railings. At all times we were careful not to damage anything. The police came, assessed the situation and decided to leave. We spent the night there supervised by a few museum employees. We left peacefully in the morning at 10am. We thanked the staff and informed the visitors who were queuing while we occupied the museum.”

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