Science Museum leaders brush off Indigenous concerns again

In December, a group of Indigenous people wrote to the Science Museum calling on its leadership to listen to Indigenous peoples’ concerns about its new sponsorship deal with Adani Green Energy. They pointed out that its parent company, Adani Group, is a major operator of coal mines and coal-fired power stations in India, Indonesia and Australia. 

Their letter states:

‘Indigenous communities in all these countries are bearing the brunt of Adani’s destructive coal expansion activities, experiencing land-grabs, repression, the destruction of sacred lands, pollution of air, land and water and, of course, the worsening impacts of climate change exacerbated by burning coal.’ 

The letter, sent by Phillip Kujur, Adivasi Activist Forum for Indigenous Rights, Jharkhand India, Adrian Burragubba, spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council and senior cultural custodian, Australia, Joseph Zane Sikulu, Pacific Climate Warriors and Siti Maimunah from Jatam Indonesia, was prompted by SMG director Ian Blatchford’s dismissal of Indigenous concerns and experiences on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. It set out in some detail the reality of Adani’s operations in these three countries, as well as the widespread opposition from impacted Indigenous communities, and called on the museum:

‘to respect Indigenous rights and listen to Indigenous peoples on this issue – we are the experts on what is happening on our lands. And, based on the experiences of Indigenous peoples around the world, we call on you to end your relationship with Adani, and with all companies actively extracting fossil fuels.’

The letter received a swift response from Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the Science Museum Group’s (SMG) Trustees. The response makes us wonder if she’d actually read it. 

She begins by emphatically passing the buck: 

‘Your letter makes some very specific allegations about the activities of Adani Mining. I feel that these are questions for that company, and also the relevant national governments.’

By acting as if Adani’s activities are nothing to do with the SMG, she demonstrates a fundamental flaw in the museum’s ethical framework. If you associate your highly respected public institution of science and learning with a corporate brand, you are, by extension, giving that brand a very powerful endorsement. Sponsorship deals are a transaction and what Adani is buying is social legitimacy. So what it gets up to is very much your business as its controversies can reflect back damagingly onto you – as is currently happening. What due diligence vetting process did the SMG go through that resulted in this partnership being deemed acceptable, we wonder?

Despite the Indigenous signatories explicitly pointing out that ‘In choosing to partner with Adani Green Energy you are choosing to partner with its parent company, Adani Group’, Archer then repeats the museum’s go-to defense that ‘[Adani Green Energy] is an independent, publicly traded entity with its own board of directors. This clear distinction is important.’ In fact, as a large group of eminent scientists and former contributors who are now refusing to work with the SMG over its stance on fossil fuel sponsorship recently pointed out, Adani Green Energy: 

‘is an integrated part of the wider Adani Group, which is involved in major coal mining activities in India, Indonesia and Australia. The entire Adani brand will benefit and gain legitimacy through its association with the SMG. You signed the sponsorship agreement with the Chairman of the Adani Group, who is also chair of Adani Green Energy, just one demonstration of the absence of any meaningful separation between the two. It is disappointing and, frankly, patronising to suggest that those raising concerns about the SMG partnering with a company with links to the coal industry have somehow misunderstood the situation.

But Archer doubles down by ‘explaining’ to these representatives of communities whose lives have been massively impacted by Adani’s destructive activities that Adani Green Energy has the ‘potential to have a very positive impact, both in supporting millions of people in India who have currently no access to electricity and in expediting India’s transition away from coal.’

Or, to paraphrase the incredibly insensitive and disrespectful line she has decided to take, ‘You may not realise, but this company that is actively pursuing coal extraction on your lands is actually India’s saviour from coal extraction.’ 

As Adivasi letter signatory Phillip Kujur has made clear in a new message to the museum, Mary Archer couldn’t be more wrong:

‘The agreement between Adani and the London Science Museum is against the Adivasi people and generations of people who have lived harmoniously with nature and learn from it… A company like Adani is destroying the Earth and wants to finish it off completely.’

The letter then takes an unexpected turn when the font colour changes to blue and suddenly SMG Director Ian Blatchford is speaking, invited by Archer to respond to the specific concerns raised by his unacceptable performance on BBC Front Row. He had been asked by Samira Ahmed to respond to comments made by Adrian Burragubba, spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council and senior cultural custodian of land that is currently being mined by Adani in Australia, that ‘by putting this company on a pedestal, the Science Museum is complicit in Adani’s violation of our Human Rights and destruction of our ancestral lands’.

Uncle Adrian Burragubba, one of the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners of the land where Adani is building its Carmichael coal mine.

Rather than making reassurances that the Science Museum Group respects Indigenous rights, Blatchford responded: 

‘Adani and their coal interests in Australia do get accused of a whole variety of things but the company would push back very strongly on those accusations… So, although you’re quoting one voice, I would not say that that is a definitive intervention on the issue, because we’ve thought about two things: not only [Adani’s] response to that and the truth of it – and there is certainly a great tendency for some campaigners to exaggerate very significantly those issues – but also we’re looking at other voices.’

The shocking spectacle of the head of one of our leading publicly funded museums defending a multinational mining company from concerns being raised by the Indigenous communities where it’s operating raised some eyebrows, to say the least. So Blatchford’s response in this letter is very telling. He says: 

‘It was not my intention to comment on the detailed working practices of Adani Mining nor to dismiss the concerns of anyone. I was asked a question during a wider interview responding to criticisms and some inaccurate claims about the Science Museum by a campaign group, Culture Unstained. The point I was seeking to make in my answer was that it would be for Adani Mining to respond to allegations about its activities in Australia and that a proper discussion of such allegations should involve other relevant voices, in this case the people impacted by mining activities, the mining company and the Australian Government.’

This ought to have been an apology and an admission that he got things very wrong. It isn’t, but it’s perhaps the closest thing to backtracking we’ve ever seen from Blatchford. We also have to wonder how much he drew, in his initial response, on a briefing Adani sent to him to help with countering potential criticism of this very mine. 

As an aside, you can read more on our website about the evidence-based concerns we at Culture Unstained have raised, about the museum’s partnership with Adani and its signing of a non-disparagement clause with the company, that Blatchford is disputing.

Archer then returns as author and sets out the SMG’s other main argument in defence of taking fossil fuel money, which is: 

‘Given the enormous expertise and wealth tied up in major energy companies, they need to play a much bigger role in urgent change to prevent a climate catastrophe. This potential explains the position taken by the Science Museum Group over the past decade that it would be counter-productive to rule out engaging with the entire sector. We believe the right approach is to engage, debate and challenge companies, governments and individuals to do more to make the global economy less carbon intensive.’

Given that the SMG’s long-running sponsors Shell, BP and Equinor all have business plans that involve exploring for new sources of fossil fuels and are nowhere near consistent with the Paris target of limiting global heating to 1.5C, the museum’s stated approach of ‘engaging’ clearly hasn’t worked. As the scientists refusing to work with the museum put it in their most recent letter

you are conflating ‘engagement’ with the endorsement that comes from ‘financial sponsorship’ and ‘public branding’… The fossil fuel-producing companies you are endorsing have track records of denial, delay and obfuscation, as well as clear weaknesses and loopholes within their current decarbonisation plans which many agree are insufficient.’

Archer would do well to listen to her former trustee Hannah Fry who wrote in the Times on resigning from the SMG board recently that

‘by allowing such public ties with these companies, I worry that the Science Museum gives the false impression that scientists believe the current efforts of fossil fuel companies are sufficient to avoid disaster.’

But it doesn’t seem that Archer, or Blatchford, are listening to anyone on this: certainly not the Indigenous communities who know the reality of their newest sponsor’s activities much better than they do. That’s why we are joining a whole range of groups at 5pm today outside the Science Museum to show our solidarity with the concerns raised in this letter, and tell the museum: listen to Indigenous people, and #DropAdani!

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