Science Museum Feeling the Heat Over Fossil Fuel Sponsorship, Emails Show

Science Museum Feeling the Heat Over Fossil Fuel Sponsorship, Emails Show
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The UK’s Science Museum and oil giant BP are increasingly concerned about criticism of their ongoing partnership, email correspondence seen by DeSmog suggests.

The news comes as the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre announce they will be ending their partnerships with BP and Shell, respectively.

Emails released through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request show Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, and a BP representative arranging a meeting to discuss fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts the day before a public debate on the issue.

Forwarding on an email sent to the museum’s staff in which he defends the Science Museum’s relationship with the oil company, Blatchford says this is why the BP representative has been “on his mind”.

In the all-staff email circulated at the end of July, Blatchford dismisses the idea that oil sponsorship of the arts amounts to greenwashing, calling it a “trite” argument, and says the collaboration enables them to “achieve moral and public good”.

Tate snub

In the email to staff, covered by the FT at the time, Blatchford dismisses the Tate’s declaration of a “climate emergency” earlier in the month.

Addressing what he calls recent “media chatter” around oil sponsorship, Blatchford writes:

The Tate announcement got such limited coverage, perhaps because press releases that are more statement than substance do not always play well with a jaded media.”

Blatchford says he instead favours maintaining ties with oil companies as a means of engaging with them on issues like climate change, an approach taken by the Natural History Museum.

I discuss these issues regularly with vital sister organisations like the Natural History Museum and their team take the same view,” he writes.

Blatchford goes on to praise the efforts of institutions like the Church of England and the Wellcome Trust to pressure fossil fuel companies from the inside, deeming this “more strategic and honest”.

The Board and senior team [of the Wellcome Trust] take the same view as us: engage, debate, challenge energy companies, because walking away is the easy and fruitless option.”

DeSmog asked the museum for details on what efforts it is making to engage with BP on climate change but did not receive a response.


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Bridget Mckenzie, from the Climate Museum initiative, told DeSmog that Blatchford’s dismissal of the Tate’s “climate emergency” announcement missed the point. She said the declaration was about “making a public pledge to take action”, not because they “wanted publicity”.

Engagement with oil and gas companies in the manner Blatchford advocates had not achieved the “desired results”, she added.

Demonising fossil fuel industry is unproductive’

Blatchford argues oil sponsorship of the arts should continue because “major energy companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding the solutions.” He said that “demonising them is seriously unproductive.”

He also insists the museum would not be prepared to work with “any energy company”, explaining that the museum would “need to be convinced that their actions and values align with our mission and objectives”.

The Science Museum did not clarify whether it had previously refused to work with any particular energy companies.

Reacting to the emails, Chris Garrard, Co-director of Culture Unstained, which campaigns for arts institutions to refuse fossil fuel sponsorship and submitted the FOI request, said the partnership should make the Science Museum uneasy. He said:

Sir Ian Blatchford continues to both defend and endorse the companies that are causing the climate crisis, even after respected climate scientists have highlighted how his oil sponsors helped to spread disinformation on climate science, lobby against climate action and have business plans that directly undermine the Paris Climate Accord.”

Big Oil links

The museum previously worked with fellow oil giant Shell, something Blatchford also addresses in his email to staff.

In 2015, an FOI by the Art Not Oil coalition, of which Culture Unstained is a member, revealed how Shell had tried to influence a climate change project it was sponsoring at the museum.

While admitting that the museum had invited Shell to offer input into plans for the project, Blatchford insists in the email that it did not adopt any of the company’s suggestions.

An August 2014 email from a Shell employee, however, claimed the museum was producing a video on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology “based on Shell’s CCS video”.

BP has also sought to influence the museum’s exhibitions over the years.

In the midst of the company’s efforts to rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum”, BP played a major role in shaping the design of the museum’s Energy Hall, according to a staff magazine from the time.

A magazine feature article from 2004 explained how an advisory board of 10 BP employees was drafted in to “help with content for the exhibits”.

The museum’s then Sponsor Liaison Manager told the magazine: “The Science Museum’s goal is to maximise its relationship with BP.”

We would like to help them meet their objectives on different levels, including corporate responsibility, education strategy and global strategy.”

Photo credit: Paul Hudson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Science Museum Feeling the Heat Over Fossil Fuel Sponsorship, Emails Show
Rich Collett-White is Deputy Editor of DeSmog. He joined the organisation in December 2018 as a UK-focused investigative reporter, having previously worked in communications for the climate charity Operation Noah. He is a member of the National Union of Journalists.

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