Science Museum backs Big Oil’s influence over STEM education, emails reveal

In the face of mounting criticism of its oil sponsorship deals, the Science Museum Group has repeatedly claimed that sponsors like Shell and BP are given ‘the same thought and consideration’ as any other funder, and that its museums always have ‘editorial control’.

But emails acquired by Culture Unstained under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed how the Science Museum Group – fully aware of the companies’ records on climate change and past support for climate science denial – have developed bespoke opportunities for Shell and BP to boost their involvement in STEM education, from sponsoring exhibitions and education academies to co-hosting science competitions for schools.

They also showed how senior figures bent over backwards to keep Shell around after the company’s corporate partnership came to an end last year and held meetings to find ‘areas that we can partner for greatest impact’. The latest instalment in these close collaborations is just a few weeks away, when the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester will open a new Shell-sponsored exhibition, marking the start of the Manchester Science Festival. But opposition to that deal continues to grow.

Museum of Sci and Ind image


Clinging on to Shell’s fossil fuel funding

At the end of 2017, Shell’s corporate partnership with the Science Museum Group came to an end (although the museum only got around to taking Shell’s logo down from its website in July). It was a decision that came late in the day with the expecation it would be renewed even at the end of November.


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Behind the scenes, the Science Museum Group was bending over backwards to maintain some kind of relationship with Shell. The Group’s Director, Chair of Trustees and other staff members sought out new opportunities to keep Shell around, from a lunch meeting to discuss ‘how we might continue to inspire futures together’ to an invitation to the Director’s Annual Dinner.



Unlike a genuine philanthropist, Shell’s continued involvement with the Science Museum Group has been sustained by the offer of opportunities to advance its own business agenda. Currently, that means increasing its role in STEM education at a time when the fossil fuel industry is facing a recruitment crisis, particularly among millennials.

A joint trip to Manchester was arranged in order to explore partnership opportunities at the Science and Industry Manchester, which has ultimately led to Shell’s sponsorship of the museum’s new ‘Electricity’ exhibition opening in a few weeks time.



Back in July, when several partners of the Manchester Science Festival expressed their unhappiness about Shell’s sponsorship of the exhibition, the museum tried to brush off their concerns by saying that Shell’s sponsorship ‘is not of the festival itself, it is of an exhibition that will be one of the events in the festival programme’.

But an email sent to Shell over a year earlier in August 2017 paints a different picture, and suggests that the Manchester Science Festival had always been an incentive for a future partnership or sponsorship deal: ‘In the mid-term, I will invite you to see some of the activity at the Museum…for example, the annual Science Festival in October’.



That new sponsorship deal continues to face mounting opposition, including a high-profile open letter from seventy scientists, artists and politicians, and a petition calling for the deal to be dropped signed by over 57,000 people. While the sponsorship was only announced in August, its involvement in the museum’s STEM education work had been in the pipeline for months. In February, Shell had also been sent seemingly detailed information about the Science and Industry Museum’s ‘Circuit City’ programme for schools in Manchester – although it was almost entirely redacted by the museum.


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A partnership with Shell for ‘greatest impact’

‘The aim of this would be to determine which spaces we are both operating in and where we may find…areas that we can partner for greatest impact’

Science Museum Group email to Shell

When the Director of the Science and Industry Museum Sally McDonald was confronted by criticism of the new Shell sponsorship deal, she repeated the Science Museum Group’s claim that no sponsor has a say in its curatorial decision-making.

However, these emails reveal that – even if Shell has no say in curatorial decisions – its collaboration with the Science Museum Group is carefully designed to advance the company’s agenda. In August last year, the museum set about organizing a collaborative ‘network mapping’ meeting with Shell to identify the ‘areas that we can partner for greatest impact’ and to ‘get a full understanding of [our] potential overall reach’.

So, rather than simply take Shell’s money to pursue its own work, the museum actively identified ways to support Shell in extending its own influence and involvement in the field of STEM education, a company which is known to have backed and funded those that spread climate science disinformation.



But back in 2015 though, the Guardian reported on its front page how Shell had attempted to directly influence the labelling, content and curation of the Science Museum’s climate science gallery, and to avoid criticism of its own business plans. The revelations became a well-known scandal in the museums sector.


Shell sought to influence - Guardian


But today, with Shell’s networks mapped out and its agenda carefully catered for, this concept of ‘editorial control’ is an interesting one. Does Shell need to concern itself with curatorial decisions when its role in STEM education is endorsed by the Science Museum Group at this more strategic level?



Balancing backing for BP and Shell

Crucially, what these emails show is that the Science Museum Group isn’t giving its backing to one oil company but carefully balancing multiple opportunities to boost the standing of the wider fossil fuel industry. Just as discussions had been progressing with Shell about future collaborations, the museum announced a new BP-sponsored ‘Academy of Science Education’ designed to bring together ‘museum professionals, teachers and STEM educators’ to take place in both Manchester and London.

Shell discovered the news not from the museum but through a mailout sent out by Politico and, unsurprisingly, was unimpressed. A staff member at Shell wrote to the Science Museum Group saying, ‘The last few times we met we were talking about the need to collaborate across the industry and the institutes about STEM, [so] as you can imagine, internally, we are being asked if we knew about this at all and if not why not.’



In response, the Science Museum Group – perhaps overeager to repair the damage – talks up opportunities for Shell in Manchester which, ‘as you had mentioned…may be of strategic interest’. Again, the museum restates its willingness to boost Shell’s business agenda by finding ‘a natural synergy that meets both parties’ key objectives’ as ‘this is where I think we can really create something unique and powerful’.



Shell and BP have plans to continue extracting fossil fuels for decades to come, business plans that directly conflict with the scientific consensus on climate change. If the Science Museum Group is willing to help these companies meet their actual key objectives, then it has chosen oil and money over ethics and integrity.