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Explaining the Science Museum and Shell sponsorship backlash

The Science Museum says it will take down a placard originally created for a school climate strike after an appeal was launched. The museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Our Future Planet’, is sponsored by Shell, which has caused huge uproar with activists.

Have you ever noticed corporate sponsorships that don’t make much sense or, at the very least, come across as contradictory?

I’m talking McDonald’s sponsoring the Olympics, or Coca-Cola pumping money into the Euros. It can feel a little strange to see brands pump money into shows that are so opposed to their ideals, thereby undermining the original intent of the thing itself. Just ask Ronaldo.

Such is the case with The Science Museum’s latest exhibition focused on climate change called ‘Our Future Planet’.

Free of charge, this new exhibition explores and explains new technologies currently in development to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. As well as showcasing fancy machinery, viewers can learn more on carbon capturing, the climate crisis in general, and read about an array of other initiatives.

Sounds great, right? There’s one small problem. It is heavily sponsored and funded by Shell, one of the biggest carbon emitters on the planet.

There has been significant backlash as a result of this financial decision. Several speakers pulled out of the climate talks back in March and Extinction Rebellion activists glued themselves to the Science Museum site at the end of August. Students also protested in June by sleeping outside the building.

Questions about the integrity of the project have been floating around ever since the sponsorship was announced.

Most recently, an open letter by the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) asked for placards created in protest of the climate crisis be removed from the exhibition.

The letter, which you can read in full here, questions why the museum ‘felt it was appropriate to display placards from protests in an exhibition sponsored by Shell, one of the corporations the climate strikes were fighting against.’

The Science Museum has agreed to do so, since it did not inform the students who created the placards that their work would be used in an exhibition sponsored by Shell.

On top of all this, Channel 4 recently reported that the Science Museum had signed a gagging clause with Shell that prevents any negative information or statements being published that may damage its reputation.

Members of UKSCN also told the Guardian that the Science Museum is increasingly becoming an ‘outlier’ and alienating itself from climate activism.

With all these protests in mind, why is this sponsorship such a big deal for climate activists?

Once you do a little digging into Shell’s financial history and investment portfolio it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about. The company routinely faces accusations of greenwashing and is yet to adequately lower its pollution levels in any meaningful way.

Between 2010 and 2018, Shell reportedly dedicated only 1% of its long-term investments to sources of low-carbon energy, and has no concrete plans to reduce its overall production of oil and gas by 2030.

It was even sued this year by Friends of the Earth in the Netherlands for failing to outline how it would cut back on emissions and reach the Paris climate agreement terms.

To have such a hugely damaging brand sponsor an exhibition like this is disappointing to many and undermines the legitimacy of the information given, regardless of how credible those working on it are.

The Science Museum giving Shell the opportunity to infiltrate academic spaces in this way is frustrating from a marketing standpoint too, since it paints the oil company as green and environmentally conscious – when it simply isn’t.

Since 1988, one hundred companies have been responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. To allow one of the guiltiest parties in this bracket an educational platform is disheartening.

Calling out hypocritical institutions in this way is important, however, so keep up the protests! I’m not saying we all need to glue ourselves to buildings, but vocalising our displeasure is a big step.

Getting rid of placards from the exhibition is a step in the right direction. Hopefully the Science Museum will think twice next time it picks up a sponsorship and perhaps this serves as a warning to others – be legitimate with your money and funding.

Don’t sacrifice integrity for cash.


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