Science Museum signed “gagging clause” with sponsor Shell

  • Science Museum Group signed contract committing not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of Shell, despite major controversy surrounding sponsor’s climate impacts 
  • Director also sought sponsorship for climate exhibition from controversial group of 12 oil firms renowned for high emissions, climate denial and delay
  • Museum walked away from deal over just one oil company’s record, exposing major flaws in its criteria for scrutinising sponsors’ climate credentials
  • Museum dismissed ethical conflicts around Shell’s human rights and environmental record in its “due diligence” process

Read the documents and full analysis here.

The Science Museum Group (SMG) has been accused of ignoring the science and shutting down critics as emails released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) have revealed how the museum signed up to a “gagging clause” to protect the reputation of Shell, the controversial sponsor of its current climate exhibition. The story was broken by Channel 4 News on its Thursday evening programme.

After the museum has faced huge criticism for its choice of sponsor for ‘Our Future Planet’, an exhibition about climate solutions, the investigation by Culture Unstained also revealed that the SMG sought sponsorship – and curatorial input – from a much wider group of oil and gas firms that includes both its existing partners BP, Shell and Equinor and also other oil giants renowned for their high emissions and links to climate denial and lobbying, such as Exxon, Chevron and Saudi Aramco. That sponsorship deal was dropped at the eleventh hour over concerns about the climate record of just one of those companies, despite none of them having business plans aligned with the Paris Climate Targets.

Jess Worth, Co-director of Culture Unstained, said:

“What kind of science museum doesn’t base its decisions on climate science but backs Big Oil’s last-ditch attempts to protect its profits and reputation instead? As we witness floods and wildfires across the world, it’s morally bankrupt for the Science Museum Group to suggest Shell and other oil companies are on the right decarbonisation path. These companies have repeatedly got failing grades for their performance on climate change, but somehow the museum has found one of the only examiners that will give them a pass. And the only way they can do that is by not scoring them on whether their business plans are actually aligned with keeping the world below 1.5°C. The decision by senior management to then sign a gagging clause to protect Shell puts other staff in a very difficult position and this should be of great concern to the museum sector as a whole.”

The documents were unearthed through a series of FOI requests made by campaign and research organisation Culture Unstained and scientist Alex Penson. You can view extracts as well as the full disclosed documents here

Highlights include:

  • The museum signing up to a form of “gagging clause” in its official contract with Shell that prevents it from making “any statement” that could be seen as “discrediting or damaging the goodwill or reputation” of Shell. This is highly problematic because it creates a “chilling effect”, where museum staff will feel pressure to refrain from speaking openly about the reality of Shell’s activities, despite the fact they are very controversial in the area the exhibition covers: climate change solutions such as carbon capture.
  • Museum Director Ian Blatchford’s attempts to secure major sponsorship from the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), an influential group of oil and gas CEOs accused of being a vehicle for greenwashing, which includes notorious fossil fuel giants Exxon and Chevron as well as mega-polluting state oil companies Saudi Aramco and China National Petroleum Company. The museum offered them a range of promotional opportunities, and to be put in direct touch with the exhibition’s curatorial team – apparently to give input on specific content for the exhibition.
  • The fact that at the eleventh hour, the Science Museum Group walked away from the proposed sponsorship deal with the OGCI because just one of its members had fallen short of the museum’s chosen standard for sponsors. The museum is using the Transition Pathway Initiative’s rating tool – a tool for investors to measure “companies’ preparedness for the transition to a low-carbon economy”, not whether their business plans are in line with Paris climate targets. Given their past record of high emissions, lobbying, delay and denial, as well as the insufficient and non-binding decarbonisation plans of all members of the OGCI, this demonstrates just how weak the museum’s ethical sponsorship criteria are. 
  • The bar the museum sets for its sponsors is far lower than the museum’s own aims on climate, which are to reduce its emissions in line with the Paris target of 1.5°C. This ethical mismatch has allowed the museum to justify still going ahead with Shell as the exhibition sponsor and claiming they are on a shared “journey to decarbonise” when the oil and gas giant’s emissions reduction plans fall far short of what’s required by the climate science.
  • Blatchford’s uncritical backing for Shell also included setting up a “special event” for “a select group of stakeholders” to speak about its contested and controversial “net zero” plan.

Izzy Warren from UKSCN London, the organisers of the climate strikes in the city, said: 

“For decades, Shell spent millions on climate denial and delay and today, its determination to continue burning fossil fuels while claiming to go ‘net zero’ is the subject of intense criticism. But rather than engaging meaningfully with these issues, those at the top of the Science Museum have taken steps to shut down critics, silence staff and appropriate the climate movement, from displaying climate strike banners without young people’s permission to bringing in police to intimidate us, and even signing up to a “gagging clause” designed to defend Shell’s reputation. With climate impacts intensifying, these moves by the museum are unacceptable.” 

Aaron Thierry, Earth Scientist and member of Scientists for Extinction Rebellion, said:

“The Science Museum bosses have signed the entire organisation up to a gagging clause preventing any criticism of Shell, one of the world’s most controversial companies renowned for promoting climate denial and complicity in human rights abuses. Apparently ignoring the red flags raised in their own internal review of risks of the partnership, the Science Museum’s decision to give Shell the legitimacy of sponsoring this climate exhibition while stifling the possibility of free debate about its negative impacts is profoundly unethical. No museum should put its staff in this position.”

Since Shell was announced as the sponsor of the Science Museum’s ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition on climate solutions in April, a major backlash has unfolded with scientists, exhibition contributors and the wider public speaking out through protests, petitions and a youth-led boycott of the exhibition. Youth climate strikers UKSCN London were particularly unhappy to discover that the museum had included placards within the Shell-sponsored exhibition from the London youth strikes in March 2019 without the strike organisers’ knowledge or consent. Last month, the museum shut down an overnight protest and 24-hour livestream broadcast led by UKSCN London against the sponsorship deal. Thirty police officers entered the museum and proceeded to threaten the group of teenage activists and scientists with arrest, despite other museums such as Tate Modern and the British Museum facilitating larger overnight protests against oil sponsorship.

The protest followed an open letter from the group to the Science Museum demanding that it drops Shell sponsorship, which was signed by 200 young activists, scientists, organisations and frontline groups, and the launch of a boycott of the exhibition, which has logged over 5800 boycott pledges. Both UKSCN London and Scientists for XR held protests during the opening week of the exhibition, with the scientists locking themselves to the Shell-sponsored exhibit for several hours. A petition started by the group BP or not BP? calling for the sponsorship to be dropped was signed by over 57,000 people.

Shell is facing intense scrutiny over its current business plans, which allow it to continue exploring for and extracting oil and gas when the International Energy Agency – and the climate science – says that to hit the Paris target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C there can be no new investment in oil and gas exploration. Instead, Shell is relying on tree planting and unproven future technology such as carbon capture and storage as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to keep polluting. In the last two months it has faced a significant shareholder rebellion over the weakness of its climate plans, a landmark ruling from a Dutch Court that the firm must curb its emissions by 45% by 2030 to be in line with Paris targets – which Shell is appealing against, and criticism over its 30% stake in the new Cambo oil and gas field off the coast of Shetland, which the UK government is controversially considering approving in the run-up to the COP26 Climate Summit.