Young people demand placard is removed from Shell-sponsored Science Museum exhibition

  • Owner of a placard from the London youth strikes currently displayed in the Science Museum has formally requested it be removed
  • Young people who donated placards were not informed they would be in an exhibition sponsored by fossil fuel giant Shell
  • Museum accused of hypocrisy over celebrating youth climate action in its display then calling the police on the same young activists when they protested at the museum
  • Museum asked to guarantee it will never again display youth strike placards in a fossil-fuel-sponsored space

Young climate campaigners from UKSCN London have today written to the Science Museum formally requesting that one of the placards it has on display be removed. The ‘Keep it cool’ placard, created by 20-year-old Bella May for the London youth climate strikes in 2019, was put in the ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition without Bella being informed that the exhibition was going to be sponsored by Shell. Given one of the targets of the youth strike protests was the exploitation and destruction caused by fossil fuel companies, Bella now wants her placard removed. She plans to go to the museum to collect it later this month and donate it to the Climate Museum UK instead. UKSCN London’s letter also asks for ‘a formal commitment from the Science Museum that none of these placards will ever be displayed in a fossil fuel sponsored space again.’ 

Bella May says: 

‘I was at the protest in Parliament Square with a placard that me and my friend Sophie Godbold had painted together. One of the ladies from the Science Museum approached us, and we said ‘Of course our poster can go to the Science Museum!’ She presented it as a really cool thing, that it’s going to be in an exhibition and the national archives, and I was really excited. So I handed it over and she gave me some papers to sign, but I wasn’t aware the exhibition was going to be sponsored by Shell. I was really shocked when I found out from UKSCN London. I feel let down because I thought I was being involved in something beneficial for people who were going to come to the exhibition. I’m disappointed that an institution such as the Science Museum would lie like that to the public, and I’d like the museum to come clean about how they’re actually part of the problem. Both Sophie and I would like our placard out of there as soon as possible.’  

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, Greta Thunberg and the wider public speaking out through protests, petitions and a youth-led boycott of the exhibition. Last month it was revealed by Channel 4 News, based on an investigation by Culture Unstained, that the museum had signed a ‘gagging clause’ with Shell committing not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of Shell, despite major controversy surrounding the sponsor’s climate impacts. Museum Director Ian Blatchford was also revealed as having courted a group of 12 major oil giants to sponsor the exhibition.

UKSCN London, who co-organised the massive London youth climate strikes in 2019, were shocked to discover that the museum had included placards within the Shell-sponsored exhibition from the strikes without the strike organisers’ knowledge or consent. They initially launched 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 then launched a boycott of the exhibition, which has logged nearly 6000 boycott pledges. In June, the museum shut down an overnight protest and 24-hour livestream broadcast led by the group. 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.

Izzy Warren (17) from UKSCN London, said: 

‘There is no justification for the Science Museum taking a movement that was built by the energy, time and effort of young people fighting for our future and fighting against fossil fuel companies and using it to greenwash and legitimise Shell. It’s hypocritical, because they’re holding up these placards from the youth climate protests as an inspirational thing, but when the same young people come and protest at their museum they call the police to have us removed. When Ian Blatchford makes these statements saying he welcomes collaboration with oil companies in the midst of a climate crisis, there’s a disconnect between him and reality. Anything else that the museum says about wanting to become carbon neutral by 2033 or educating the public on climate is redundant and irrelevant as long as they’re still providing fossil fuel companies with a social license to operate.’

Izzy Warren speaking outside the Science Museum the morning after they were evicted by police. Photo by Ron Fassbender.

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. Over the August Bank Holiday weekend Extinction Rebellion held a 70-strong overnight occupation of the museum.

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 few 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. 

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