Email reveals Science Museum boss’s misleading defence of Shell sponsorship

  • Internal email to staff reveals Science Museum Director made “desperate defence” of sponsorship deal to staff
  • Youth climate strikers launch boycott of new exhibition after museum dismisses their concerns
  • Exhibition to open day after Shell slammed by shareholder groups for “vague commitments” on climate at AGM and IEA calls for end to new oil and gas projects

As the Science Museum prepares to open a new climate exhibition sponsored by the oil giant Shell tomorrow, Culture Unstained has revealed that the Science Museum Group (SMG)’s director mounted a “desperate defence” of the deal in a lengthy email to staff. The organisation-wide message was sent on 29th April after the news of the partnership provoked a major backlash among scientists, youth climate strikers and the public. Director of the SMG Ian Blatchford has become increasingly isolated in his backing for Big Oil, with news of his email emerging the day that Shell was slammed by shareholder groups during its AGM for making “vague commitments that don’t do anything” to tackle climate change. It comes as youth climate activists launch a public pledge to boycott the exhibition, with protests planned by them and other groups in the coming days, and a petition calling for Shell to be dropped as a sponsor has reached over 50k signatures.

The full text of Ian Blatchford’s email can be read here.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group

The 1300-word email reveals a clear lack of objectivity by the Director of the taxpayer-funded museum group, including making inaccurate claims about the museum’s oil sponsors and characterising the opposition to the sponsorship as coming entirely from ‘activists’. In fact a large number of scientists, climate organisations and some of the contributors to the ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition itself had expressed their shock at the choice of fossil fuel giant Shell. 

Blatchford states as fact:

“The three energy companies we work with have all made commitments to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement…”  

Scientists and investor groups have repeatedly shown that no oil and gas major is on track to meet the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, including the SMG’s partners Shell, BP and Equinor. The International Energy Agency today published its scenario for how the world can get to net zero and keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees in line with Paris – it involves no new oil and gas exploration, starting this year. All three companies plan to invest billions in new fossil fuels in the coming years. 

Blatchford also criticises writer George Monbiot for objections that he raised to Shell’s sponsorship in his column in the Guardian. Despite Monbiot’s decades-long work on climate and the environment, including authoring Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, Blatchford writes:

“[Monbiot] has not seen the exhibition and it typifies a kind of lazy reflex that shuts down public discourse on the way ahead. It is so easy to say we must stop using coal, oil and gas at once, and much harder to take responsibility for mapping out a practical way ahead.”

In response, George Monbiot says:

“Ian Blatchford appears determined not to understand why anyone should object to an oil company sponsoring an exhibition on climate change. This strategic incomprehension convinces no-one, while inflicting even more damage on the reputation of a great institution.”

Inside the Science Museum in London

Blatchford also claims that criticism of the sponsorship

“…Insults the integrity and hard work of the curatorial team and external contributors behind Our Future Planet who have produced a scientifically robust and balanced exploration of a small but significant solution to tackling climate change – carbon capture.”

But Dr Emma Sayer, a contributor to the exhibition, disagrees. She says:

“As a contributor to the exhibition, I feel that the integrity and hard work of all involved has been undermined by the links to a major oil company, not by the criticism of the sponsorship. And if sponsorship from Big Oil is as uncontroversial as the Director claims, why were contributors such as myself not informed or consulted about it before it was made public? Many scientists and members of the wider public will remain sceptical about Shell’s claims of going “net zero” until its investments in decarbonisation finally outstrip its investments in exploiting fossil fuels.”

Promotional image for the ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition. Placards from the Strike 4 Climate movement are visible (right) although youth activists object to their inclusion.

Shell has come under particular criticism over its determination to keep extracting fossil fuels and ‘offset’ the emissions by planting vast numbers of trees. At the company’s AGM today, a significant 30% of shareholders voted against the board, calling on the company to set stronger targets to align it with Paris, recognising that so far its climate plans fall far short of what’s needed.

The full text of Blatchford’s email can be read here

Dr Chris Garrard, Co-director of Culture Unstained said:

“It is deeply concerning that the boss of the Science Museum is making misleading comments in a desperate defence of his oil sponsor, ignoring legitimate criticisms from exhibition contributors and the scientific community. As a holder of public office, he has a duty to act with honesty and integrity, not to be a cheerleader for an industry that’s currently on a collision course with the climate. The International Energy Agency is clear that limiting global heating means no investment in new fossil fuel projects, yet the Science Museum’s oil sponsors are all planning to pour billions into oil and gas we can’t afford to extract. This is why Shell is not an appropriate sponsor for a climate exhibition. To ignore that exposes just how out of touch with the reality of the climate crisis Ian Blatchford is.”

Pressure has been mounting on the Science Museum Group since the sponsorship deal was made public on 15th April. Since then:

  • A petition started by the activist theatre group BP or not BP? calling for Shell to be dropped as a sponsor has gained over 50k signatures, and received support from actor Thandiwe Newton.
  • An open letter to the Science Museum coordinated by UKSCN London, the group that coordinated the youth climate strikes in London, said they would call a boycott of the exhibition if Shell wasn’t dropped. It was supported by over 170 scientists, climate organisations and NGOs. After no response from the museum, today UKSCN London are launching a public pledge to boycott the exhibition.
  • Scientists for Extinction Rebellion sent a powerful letter to Director Ian Blatchford setting out the case against Shell sponsorship and they will be joined by other members of Extinction Rebellion for a protest at the Science Museum on Wednesday 19th May.
  • A large, covid-safe public protest will take place outside the museum this coming Saturday, organised by UKSCN London.

Dr Alison Green, Executive Director of Scientists Warning Foundation, said:

“Investments in campaigns of denial, misinformation and deflection long associated with the fossil fuel sector are quite simply antithetical to science and to all that the Science Museum stands for. Maintaining any association with an organisation invested in science denial and misinformation has the extremely detrimental effect of enabling those organisations to hold onto their social license to operate. A company that knowingly continues to perpetuate the climate and ecological crisis simply cannot be a part of the solution.”

The new exhibition – and the Science Museum as a whole – opens to the public on Wednesday 19th May following an extended period of closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Ian Blatchford is not in post as the museum finally reopens, having been granted a 3-month research leave which began on the 15th May, supported by the trustees of the Science Museum Foundation.