Oil sponsorship of the Science Museum

The Science Museum’s interactive gallery for children is sponsored by oil giant Equinor

As many cut ties to fossil fuels, Science Museum stands firm

In the last few years, many museums and cultural organisations have cut their ties to oil companies because of their role in fuelling the climate emergency: Tate, Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company are no longer sponsored by BP, and the National Theatre, Southbank Centre, National Gallery and British Film Institute are no longer partnered with Shell. And in 2019, the Edinburgh Science Festival announced that it would no longer accept fossil fuel sponsorship, saying that:

‘Whilst we see change happening in the oil and gas sector and appreciate that the demands on them are complex, we are of the view that the sector is not moving fast enough.’

However, the Science Museum Group (SMG) continues to defend its controversial partnerships with oil giants Equinor (formerly Statoil) and BP, with its Director saying in 2019 that:

‘Even if the Science Museum were lavishly publicly funded I would still want to have sponsorship from the oil companies.’ 

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group

Controversial sponsorship deals and growing opposition

Fossil fuel sponsors have exerted influence at the Science Museum Group (SMG) for many years with a team of staff from BP directly involved in developing the museum’s Energy Gallery. In 2015, the museum faced major controversy when emails released under the Freedom of Information Act showed how Shell had attempted to influence the museum’s climate science gallery, Atmosphere. The Director denied that the museum – or Shell – had done anything wrong. In 2016, as Tate cut its ties to BP and the tide turned on oil sponsorship, the Science Museum in London opened ‘Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery’, an interactive exhibition for children. Equinor remains the title sponsor of ‘Wonderlab’, and BP sponsors the museum’s STEM Training Academy.

In 2018, 46 highly-respected scientists, science policy experts, naturalists and community representatives called on the SMG to end its partnerships with BP, Equinor and Shell, joining forces to support a formal complaint to the museum. Among them were naturalist Chris Packham, former NASA climate scientist Professor James Hansen, and expert in science disinformation and author of Merchants of Doubt, Professor Naomi Oreskes. That complaint set out detailed evidence of how the museum had breached its Ethics Policy by working with companies that had supported the spread of disinformation about climate science, spent billions lobbying against climate legislation and continue to invest in new fossil fuels. The SMG failed to make any substantive response to the concerns that were raised.

In the same year, several partners pulled out of the Manchester Science Festival over the decision to make Shell the sponsor of the headline exhibition. The annual festival, which this year’s ‘Climate Talks’ are part of, is hosted by the Museum of Science and Industry and part of the SMG.

BP is a Founding Partner of the Science Museum Group’s STEM Training Academy

Oil sponsorship

Ian Blatchford has repeatedly dismissed and disregarded the arguments against oil sponsorship, claiming that fossil fuel companies:

“have the capital, geography, people and logistics to find the solutions [to climate change] and demonising them is seriously unproductive.”

An investigation by Culture Unstained has revealed emails showing Blatchford working closely behind the scenes with BP to counter criticism of its sponsorship.

But neither BP nor Equinor’s business plans are aligned with the Paris Climate Goals, and implying that they are is hugely problematic and legitimises their ongoing fossil fuel extraction at unsustainable levels. Research by the Transition Pathway Initiative – which the SMG has signed up to – found that:

“No fossil fuel energy major has yet set an emissions target in line with limiting climate change to 2 degrees”. 

And, of course, we need to be aiming for much deeper and more rapid emission cuts if we are to have any hope of keeping global temperature rise to the Paris target of 1.5C, which would give us a much better chance of avoiding climate breakdown.

Instead, these oil majors have announced non-binding “ambitions” to become net zero by 2050. But their ambitions are full of loopholes, reliance on unproven and expensive technology such as large-scale CCS, and other offsets and opt-outs.

In reality, BP has a stake in a $134bn new project to drill in the Arctic and continues to invest in new oil and gas exploration around the world. While its ‘net zero’ claims and plans to cut oil and gas production are certainly a step in the right direction, they don’t go nearly far enough, and the company plans to still be extracting fossil fuels in 2050.

Similarly, researchers at Carbon Tracker have highlighted how Equinor plans to increase its oil and gas production by 3% per year until 2026.

speakers pull out of the ‘Climate Talks’ 

The Science Museum Group is currently hosting a series of talks on climate change but is once again turning a blind eye to its backing for an industry which is making the crisis worse. The Director of the Science Museum Group has ignored campaigners, staff, youth activists and climate scientists. Instead, he supports and endorses oil firms that are pursuing climate-wrecking business plans.

In response, on February 26th 2021, environmentalist George Monbiot decided to pull out of the Climate Talk he was due to appear in.

His concerns have now been echoed by another speaker – Mark Lynas: