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The question of whether oil giants seek to control the messages at museums they sponsor may have been answered.
The Guardian has obtained several emails exchanged between the Science Museum in London and Shell, which recently became the principal sponsor of the institution’s climate science gallery. They show the company repeatedly making demands about the museum’s exhibitions.
“Regards the rubbish archive project [an interactive exhibition examining the impact of waste on the environment], [redacted name] and I have some concerns on this exhibition particularly as it creates an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell’s operations,” reads one especially disturbing email sent by a Shell employee to a museum staffer on May 8, 2014.
It continues with the company seemingly insinuating it would like a say on which guests would attend a climate change conference at the institution. “Could you please share more information with us on the symposium event planned for September? As you know we receive a great deal of interest around our art sponsorships so need to ensure we do not proactively open up a debate on the topic. Will it be an invite only event?”
The email ends with the Shell representative asking whether the museum employee has spoken with Shell climate change adviser David Hone “to see if he would like to participate in the content refresh.”
The news comes just a couple months after 39 scientists published an open letter asking science museums to cut ties with climate change deniers. “We are deeply concerned by the links between museums of science and natural history with those who profit from fossil fuels or fund lobby groups that misrepresent climate science,” they wrote, going on to single out David Koch, who has donated millions to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. In 2010, the New Yorker reported that a Smithsonian exhibition in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins had an erie anti-climate change message that “uncannily echo[ed] the Koch message.” A subsequent petition to kick Koch off the board of these two museums amassed more than 200,000 signatures.
Some of that conversation seemed to frame the issue in a moral light — science museums should have integrity and reject money from those who don’t believe in global warming. That seemed unrealistic, as it would be impossible to police every source of money institutions receive. But the recent Guardian report shows that it’s not so much about showing which side you’re on, but about making sure you don’t end up being bribed into switching teams. It’s a purely pragmatic decision, as money rarely seems to come without those proverbial strings.
The Guardian did not publish the Science Museum’s email responses, so we don’t know whether it bowed to any of Shell’s requests. The institution defended itself Sunday, saying that though it’s common for sponsors to make suggestions, it did not yield any editorial control to the oil company. “I can confirm that not a single change to an exhibition resulted from these email exchanges,” museum director Ian Blatchford said.
Regardless of the truth, it will be hard for people to fully believe that. By partnering with sponsors like Shell, the Science Museum and others like it have made themselves vulnerable to criticism, and informed visitors will always be scrutinizing its exhibitions for signs they took the bait.