The Science Museum in London has agreed to remove a protest sign from its Our Future Planet exhibition after its donors complained that the temporary exhibition was sponsored by Shell.
The “keep it cool” placard, created by Bella May with her friend Sophie Godbold for the London youth climate strikes in 2019, was one of several signs acquired by the museum as part of its contemporary collecting strategy.
The museum says the placards were acquired by curators in a “professional and sensitive manner” with individuals approached at the protest and full consent undertaken.
But following a letter sent by UKSCN London, the co-organisers of the 2019 London youth strikes, the museum has agreed to remove the object from display. It is not yet confirmed what will happen to the placard next.
The letter states that the young people were not made aware of Shell’s sponsorship at the time of their donations.
May is quoted as saying she was excited to have her sign in the exhibition, and was later “shocked” to discover its association with Shell. “I feel let down because I thought I was being involved in something beneficial for people who were going to come to the exhibition,” she said.
“I’m disappointed that an institution such as the Science Museum would lie like that to the public, and I’d like the museum to come clean about how they’re actually part of the problem. Both Sophie and I would like our placard out of there as soon as possible.”
The letter also calls on the museum to make a formal commitment not to display any of the remaining 23 climate strike placards from the march in a fossil fuel-sponsored space again.
Our Future Planet exhibition, which opened in May and runs until September 2022, explores the technologies being developed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But its sponsorship by the oil giant Shell has caused a backlash, with a number of protests, petitions and boycotts organised as a result.
In response to the letter, a spokesperson for the Science Museum said: “[Having] been alerted to the strong feelings of a donor, and in light of all the circumstances around this request, we have decided to remove this item from display and are contacting the donor directly.”
The spokesperson made clear that the placard was acquired by curators specifically for the Science Museum Group collection and only later selected for inclusion in the temporary exhibition.
He said: “A rigorous proposal was developed ahead of the protest, to ensure that the approach to collecting items was sensitive, thorough and in line with museum sector professional ethics.”
He said that, at the protest, individuals were approached by curators, who explained they hoped to acquire some protest materials for the collection and asked if the individuals would like to donate their protest materials at a later date.
Those who expressed an interest were given the curator's contact details. Individuals who later contacted the museum were again asked if they would be willing to donate their materials to the collection. Consent was sought from the parents or guardians of those under 18 as part of the formal donation process and the acquisition only went ahead where that consent was forthcoming. No materials that were discarded at the protest were collected as it would be impossible to establish ownership.
According to the spokesperson, the process forms part of the Science Museum Group’s long-term and ongoing efforts to acquire items related to contemporary science, which is detailed in the Group's Collection Development Policy.
It has not been confirmed that the placard will be returned to the donors, as originally reported.