Partners quit Manchester Science Festival over Shell sponsorship, emails reveal

  • Emails released following FOI request reveal that festival partners raised concerns about Shell sponsorship with 3 pulling out to avoid association with oil company
  • Petition with over 57,000 signatories calling for Shell to be dropped will be submitted to Manchester Science and Industry Museum today as festival programme is launched
  • Revelations come as Van Gogh Museum and two other Dutch museum cut ties to Shell
  • Respected figures including broadcaster Chris Packham and Manchester-based climate scientist Kevin Anderson have already joined opposition to the deal

The launch of the Manchester Science Festival programme today risks being overshadowed by the revelation that three of its partners walked away from their involvement, and others raised concerns, after being informed that the event’s headline exhibition would be sponsored by Shell. The Manchester-based Science and Industry Museum (SIM)’s new exhibition – ‘Electricity: the spark of life’ – will open to coincide with the start of the festival on the 18th October, but news that Shell would be its major sponsor has sparked a growing controversy since it was announced. The news come as Manchester residents are to submit a petition to the museum at 11am today calling for the sponsorship deal to be dropped, after it gained 57k signatures on the 38 Degrees website.





Emails reveal objections to Shell sponsorship

Manchester-based renewables and retrofit organisation, Carbon Coop, publicly ended their involvement in the exhibition after being informed of Shell’s sponsorship. However, internal emails released following our Freedom of Information request and made public today clearly show that:

  • Several other organisations expressed unease and concerns about Shell’s connection with the festival to the museum, with at three or more more deciding to walk away
  • One organisation says Shell’s involvement makes it ‘impossible for us to be part of the festival. We are climate focused and the petrol / oil industry is not addressing the issue in any meaningful way except green wash where they can’. Another says ‘We feel that it would be difficult for us to align our brand with a company associated so strongly with the causes of Climate Change. Given our very public stand (and hence, positioning in the market)… we feel that there is too much dissonance between our positions. This has the potential to undermine our relationship with our audiences.’
  • Another partner chose to remain involved this year, but informed the museum that ‘We feel that a festival that promotes science and knowledge contradicts itself by endorsing companies whose contribution to global warming and its denial is so tremendously damaging to society and counterproductive to the pursuit of knowledge’ and that ‘we don’t expect to work with the festival in future if something like this occurs again.’
  • Rather than respond to the concerns raised, the museum appears to have prioritised the Shell relationship and accepted the loss of these partners

You can view the emails by clicking here.

Laura Williams, Engagement Officer at Carbon Coop said:

‘Making the decision to campaign against an organisation that you have worked with is not easy. We, like many in Manchester, feel that the Science and Industry Museum offers a vital platform for showing the positive role that technology could play in transforming our world. The museum’s decision to take sponsorship from Shell is a betrayal of this, undermining its ability to inspire the next generation on what our future should look like. We know that we’re not alone in this view. From the tens of thousands who’ve already put their name to the campaign through to those that have already decided to pull out of the Science Festival, the pressure on the museum is growing. We will be continuing to support the actions in Manchester and encouraging others to join us as we fight for a museum that we can be proud of.’

Briony from Stitched Up, another festival partner that ended its involvement due to concerns about the association with Shell, said:

‘We are an organisation working towards a sustainable future. Shell is a company wedded to the oil age, with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

We feel it’s vitally important that our cultural and educational institutions remain independent from these voices.

Otherwise rather than seeking new and innovative solutions based on neutral, balanced analysis, all we do is reinforce existing ways of doing things.’

Growing controversy surrounds sponsorship deal

Since Shell’s sponsorship of the new exhibition was quietly announced on the 7th August, others have also called on the museum to end the deal. Seventy scientists, artists, campaigners, politicians, local organisations and representatives of communities affected by Shell’s activities – including naturalist Chris Packham, Manchester-based climate scientist Kevin Anderson, President of Greater Manchester Association of Trade Union Councils Stephen Hall, and environmentalist Sir Jonathon Porritt – signed an open letter to the museum’s director Sally MacDonald calling on her to think again.


Naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham, has said:

‘As the world swelters and wildlife struggles in this unprecedented heatwave, MSI has decided to partner with Shell, one of the corporations responsible for fueling 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.’

The announcement of Shell’s sponsorship of the Science and Industry Museum came just weeks after the Greater Manchester region experienced large wildfires as part of a nationwide heatwave, prompting renewed debate about those that are driving climate change.

Jess Worth, Co-director of Culture Unstained commented on the significance of the emails:

‘What is so concerning about these emails is that the interests of an oil company tarnished by human rights violations, mired in a corruption scandal and driving dangerous climate change have won out over the deeply held values of several festival partners. But there is still time for the museum to draw an ethical red line and ensure its integrity and reputation isn’t damaged further. Museums are under significant financial pressure today, but the Van Gogh Museum’s recent decision to end its 18-year partnership with Shell shows that you can be a world-class museum and refuse to legitimise the fossil fuel industry.’

Tide turns against Shell sponsorship of museums

Over the last week it has been confirmed that three Dutch museums – including the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – are ending their sponsorship deals with Shell, following a campaign of creative protest by the group Fossil Free Culture NL.


The Science Museum Group – of which the Science and Industry Museum is a member – is already under pressure to justify its partnerships with Shell, BP and Equinor after nearly 50 leading scientists submitted a formal complaint in July arguing that the museum group is ‘undermining its integrity as a scientific institution’ by partnering with major fossil fuel companies, despite their continued contribution to climate change.

Complaint summary and signatories (single page spread)

You can view the full text of the formal complaint by clicking here.

Growing calls for ethical approach to sponsorship

Over the last year, campaigns calling for ethical funding of arts, science and cultural institutions are becoming more widespread. At the beginning of August, around 40 artists with objects on display in the Design Museum’s ‘Hope to Nope’ exhibition removed their artworks from display after discovering the museum had allowed its building to be hired for an arms industry reception event. And in March, BAE Systems was forced to withdraw its sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North just a week after it was announced when large numbers of participating artists refused to have their performances associated with the arms company.


The Design Museum’s Hope to Nope exhibition