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Victory: Science Museum Drops Shell Sponsorship

Science Museum Atmosphere exhibition. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/REX Shutterstock

Arrangement with oil company will not be renewed when it lapses in December, but museum refuses to rule out future partnership

The Science Museum will not renew a controversial sponsorship deal with Shell in which the oil company provided significant funding for its high-profile climate change exhibition.

The museum in London answered a freedom of information request saying: “No, the Science Museum Group [formerly the National Museum of Science & Industry] does not have plans to renew its existing sponsorship deal or initiate a new deal or funding agreement with Royal Dutch Shell.”

The Shell arrangement – the value of which has not been made public – will lapse in December despite the fact that the museum’s directorargued in June that such external funding was vital at a time of declining government funding.

Critics have previously attacked the choice of a fossil fuel company as a funder for the museum’s Atmosphere gallery on climate science andsaid emails show Shell sought to influence the programme. However,current and former directors of the museum have rejected the charges, saying no curatorial changes had been made on Shell’s behalf.

Chris Garrard, of campaign group BP or not BP?, which discovered the deal would not be renewed, called on the museum to end its relationship with BP as well.

“It’s no secret that Shell relentlessly lobbies against measures to tackle climate change – but the Science Museum went ahead with this ill-advised deal nonetheless. This is a step in the right direction, but the museum needs to stop legitimising the fossil fuel industry completely by ditching its deal with BP too,” he said.

Ian Blatchford, the museum’s director, has defended the sponsorship, saying: “I know some people will have a broader disagreement with our decision to form partnerships with corporations such as Shell. I respect their right to hold that opinion, but I fundamentally disagree.”

The Science Museum told the Guardian it had not changed its position, and the five-year deal was simply coming to an end. It did not rule out future partnerships with Shell.

“For the avoidance of doubt, we have a long-term relationship with Shell, with whom we remain in open dialogue. We may or may not enter into partnership agreements with Shell in the future,” a spokesman said.

Former director Chris Rapley, who approved the Shell deal, did not want to comment. He has robustly defended the sponsorship, saying the museum needed the funding and that disengagement from oil companies was “too simplistic” because society still relied on their products.

The lapsing of the deal will be seen as a blow to Shell after it was forced out of the Prince of Wales’s climate change project earlier this year because of its efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic. Last year, toy firmLego also ended its partnership with the oil company after a sustained campaign by Greenpeace, which said Shell’s polar plans were at odds with the Danish company’s green image.

A Shell spokesperson said: “Shell and the Science Museum have a longstanding relationship, based on shared interests such as the need to inspire young people about science. Shell will continue to be a supporter of the museum and we look forward to maintaining our strong relationship into the future.”

Shell has successfully lobbied in Europe to undermine targets for renewable energy, which is seen by the world’s top climate science panel as key in tackling climate change. In September, the company shelved its plans for Arctic drilling off the coast of Alaska, conceding privately that opposition from environmentalists had played a part in its decision.

Campaigners against fossil fuel sponsorship in the arts said the Science Museum’s decision not to renew its deal with Shell would put pressure on other top cultural institutions to do the same.

BP has deals in place worth £10m over five years with Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum and the Royal Opera House. Shell is a sponsor of the National Theatre on London’s Southbank.

Anna Galkina of the art and environment group Platform London, which this year won an FOI battle to force the Tate to reveal how much it was paid by BP, said: “Tate is among four other cultural institutions that have BP sponsorship deals that expire at the end of 2016. They’re going to be deciding what to do on that. So really the Science Museum news should be a useful prod to reconsider these relationships, especially with the Paris climate talks coming up.”

However, the director of the Museums Association said that the issue was not straightforward. “I think that’s too much of a black and white way of approaching it,” said Sharon Heal of the idea that all museums and galleries should stop taking money from oil companies.

“Obviously we do recognise that museums are in a difficult place in terms of their public funding environment. However they are in a good place in terms of public trust and the public don’t want to see that abused or misused through any sponsorship arrangements.”

National institutions such as the Science Museum face budget cuts of between 25 and 40% as part of the government’s comprehensive spending review, details of which are due to be announced on 25 November, she said. Heal added that museums had been encouraged by the government to develop alternative sources of income.

Activists are planning to target the Louvre in Paris during the UN climate summit that opens in three weeks’ time, over the art gallery’s ties with French oil company Total and Italian oil company Eni.

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