Pressure mounts on the Museum of Science and Industry to drop its Shell sponsorship deal

If you’re a science museum, taking money from the fossil fuel industry – and especially a company like Shell – should be off limits by now. From its ties to climate denial to its human rights violations in the Niger Delta, and from its ongoing trial over alleged corruption to its new deepwater drilling plans, Shell is a deeply unethical company that should have no place in a trusted scientific or cultural institution.

But little over a month ago, the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester announced that Shell would be sponsoring its new Electricity: the spark of life exhibition, an exhibition that will open to coincide with the launch of the Manchester Science Festival. And just weeks ago, the Science Museum Group – which the Museum of Science and Industry is a member of – received a formal complaint from almost fifty respected scientists calling on it to cut its ties to the fossil fuel industry.

And in the last few days, the pressure on the Museum of Science and Industry has gone up another gear. It was announced on Friday that, following a high-profile campaign of creative protest, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam plans to end its sponsorship deal with Shell, alongside a host of other cultural institutions in the Netherlands. With the tide turning, how long can the Museum of Science and Industry cling on to its own increasingly toxic sponsorship deal with Shell?

Exhibition partner pulls out

Pressure has been mounting on the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) since the 9th July, when Shell’s sponsorship of the new exhibition was made public. It was dealt an early blow when the renewables and retrofit firm Carbon Coop immediately announced that it would end its involvement in the exhibition in protest at the Shell sponsorship deal. Jonathan Atkinson from Carbon Co-op said:

‘Our core mission is around developing ways to address the causes and effects of climate change. It is hugely disappointing that Manchester Science Museum have chosen to align themselves with a company that holds significant carbon reserves, with a historic position in denying climate change and [its] responsibility for tackling the issue.’

They also highlighted how the impacts of climate change have very much become a local, as well as a global, issue:

‘The summer of 2018 has already drawn unprecedented levels of attention to the growing effects of climate change, with record breaking temperatures and serious moorland fires in the hills surrounding Manchester.’

Scientists, environmentalists and policy makers condemn the deal

On the same day, almost 70 scientists, environmentalists, representatives of impacted communities and policy makers signed a letter to Sally McDonald, Director of the Museum of Science and Industry, calling on her to end the deal. The signatories included naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham, President of Greater Manchester Association of Trade Union Councils Stephen Hall, and PCS Union Vice-President and Artists Union England joint national Chair Zita Holbourne.

The letter was clear in its critique of the sponsorship:

‘The association of respected cultural institutions such as MSI with fossil fuel firms provides such companies with a sheen of legitimacy to continue acting in a way that damages the health of citizens and endangers the environment on a global scale.’


Chris Packham added that:

‘As the world swelters and wildlife struggles in this unprecedented heatwave, MSI has decided to partner with Shell, one of the corporations responsible for fuelling climate change. A museum dedicated to science education should not be helping promote any company that is actively exacerbating this planetary emergency until they show a serious proactive drive to switch to renewables. And thus far this is not happening.’

This wasn’t the first letter sent to the museum’s director. The signatories had previously contacted her privately in an attempt to resolve this clear ethical conflict without the kind of damaging controversy the museum is now facing. But, in light of the museum’s decision to press ahead with the sponsorship deal, the signatories have made clear that:

‘We will now make our case loudly and persistently’.

Over 55k people call for deal to be dropped

And it’s not just this group of signatories who are outraged by the new sponsorship deal. A petition created just over two weeks ago on the 38 degrees site calling for Shell to be dropped as a sponsor has gained over 55,000 signatures, and that number continues to rise.

MSI Drop Shell petition screenshot

The petition, addressed to MSI, spells out that:

‘The Museum of Science and Industry has an important role in inspiring children and young people to become the climate scientists and energy system engineers of the future. Fossil fuel companies like Shell have no role in that future.’

You can add your support here.

Science Museum Group already under scrutiny

And the Science Museum Group – which the Museum of Science and Industry is a member of – is already under scrutiny for its ties to Big Oil. Last month, almost 50 leading climate scientists, naturalists, and representatives of affected communities backed a formal complaint to the Science Museum Group, accusing it of ‘undermining its integrity as a scientific institution’ by partnering with BP, Shell and Statoil despite their continued contribution to climate change.

Complaint excerpt

Culture Unstained, with support from several of the signatories, drafted the main text and core arguments of the complaint. Part of the complaint highlighted specific shortcomings in the Science Museum Group’s ‘due diligence’ reports on BP, Shell and Statoil, where the museum is meant to carefully assess whether a company would be an ethical and acceptable sponsor. These due diligence reports showed that the Science Museum Group was fully aware of these companies’ ties to corruption, the spread of climate disinformation and links to corruption but had taken the decision to sign various sponsorship deals and corporate partnerships with them regardless.

Shell has crossed the red line on sponsorship before

And what is so poorly judged about this new sponsorship deal is that Shell has crossed the line before, when it sponsored the Science Museum’s climate science exhibition Atmosphere and then attempted to influence its content and other curatorial decisions in order to dodge unwanted scrutiny. When the story broke in 2016, the Guardian ran a front-page story which quoted the incriminating emails.

Shell sought to influence - Guardian

The case has become well-known in the museums sector as an example of how corporate sponsors can cross a red line. The revelations also made clear that Shell is a company that will interfere, influence and push its own interests over those of the museum if it has the chance. Given the significance of this scandal, you would have expected that the Science Museum Group would have steered clear of Shell rather than courting fresh controversy.

A turning tide against Shell sponsorship

And now the Van Gogh Museum, one of the world’s most iconic art institutions, is preparing to dump Shell as a sponsor. Over the course of two years, Fossil Free Culture NL – a collective of artists, activists and researchers – creatively shone a spotlight on everything from Shell’s numerous oil spills to its continued investments in fossil fuels. Cultural sponsorship provides Shell with a cheap way of ‘artwashing’ its brand and deflecting attention from its destructive business plans. Through its performances, Fossil Free Culture NL revealed the reality and undermined the ‘social license to operate’ that Shell had been hoping to buy.

And back in 2014, a series of singing interventions by the Shell Out Sounds choir as well as pressure from the arts and research organisation Platform brought about the end of Shell’s sponsorship of the ‘Shell Classic International’ concert series at the Southbank Centre in London.

The controversy around Shell’s sponsorship of scientific and cultural institutions isn’t going away and with climate impacts intensifying, the spotlight on unethical oil sponsorship deals will only get brighter. The MSI’s Shell-sponsored exhibition opens in just under two months. Will the museum take the opportunity to take note of the turning tide, think again and protect its reputation from further damage?