Activists protest Shell’s sponsorship of the exhibition Our Future Planet at the Science Museum, London (photo by UKSCN)

LONDON — This weekend, an activist collective of climate scientists and students staged an “occupation” of the Science Museum in protest against the museum’s sponsorship from fossil fuel giant, Shell. A planned 24-hour live stream with talks by climate campaigners from around the world was interrupted when police officers evicted the group of protestors from the museum. 

Activists from the group Scientists for XR (Extinction Rebellion) and the London branch of the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) are protesting against Shell’s sponsorship of the exhibition Our Future Planet at the Science Museum. The display highlights new “carbon capture” technologies and nature-based solutions being developed to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and slow the effects of climate change. In an open letter published last month, the UKSCN accused the Science Museum of providing Shell with “an opportunity for brazen green-washing” and called on the museum to drop sponsorship from the oil and gas multinational. 

Activists protest Shell’s sponsorship of the exhibition Our Future Planet at the Science Museum, London (photo by UKSCN)

On Saturday afternoon, the activists stationed themselves outside the exhibition with leaflets and placards and spoke to museum visitors about the protest. In addition, they started a YouTube live stream that included talks by climate campaigners, scientists, and contributors to Our Future Planet, including 20-year-old student Bella May, whose poster from the climate change protest in March 2019 is on display in the exhibition.

Izzy Warren, a 17-year-old high school student in West London and member of UKSCN, told Hyperallergic: “I really hope that today at least shows the Science Museum that young people and scientists — who are the main target audience of this institution — truly condemn this decision to accept funding from an oil company for an exhibition on climate change.” 

Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum, has repeatedly defended the museum’s controversial sponsorship from fossil fuel companies. In an internal email sent to Science Museum staff in April, Blatchford said: “Campaigners who want us to sever our ties with Shell, BP, and Equinor are ignoring the reality that these companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions to the urgent challenges of climate change.”

Scientists who took part in the protest on Saturday dispute Blatchford’s claim that major oil and gas companies are part of the solution to climate change. Caroline Vincent, who holds a PhD in Biology and worked as a consultant to pharmaceutical companies for 30 years before joining Scientists for XR, said to Hyperallergic: “The argument of the museum is that Shell is part of the solution, but we are saying that Shell is definitely part of the problem — and still fuelling the climate crisis. For instance, for every $1 that they spend on renewable [energy], they are still spending $23 extracting fossil fuels.” 

Activists pen postcards to the Science Museum, in protest of Shell’s sponsorship (photo by Naomi Polonsky/Hyperallergic)

Our Future Planet is the first exhibition in a UK museum to explore so-called “capture and storage” technologies for carbon emission reduction, such as Klaus Lackner’s carbon-absorbing mechanical tree prototype. In a blog post about the exhibition, research organization Culture Unstained (CU) said that oil and gas companies often use carbon-capture strategies to justify their ongoing extraction of fossil fuels.

The activists at Saturday’s protest said that their “occupation” of the museum was a way of showing that they “won’t stand by and let the Science Museum green-wash Shell’s reputation.” At 5:30pm they unfurled banners with the slogans “Drop Shell Sponsorship” and “Stop Taking Oil Money” from balconies in the museum’s iconic main hall. They informed museum staff that around 20 of them would be staying overnight and tweeted: “THIS IS AN OCCUPATION!!!! we will be staying in the science museum until tomorrow afternoon, continuing our livestream and continuing to tell @sciencemuseum to #DropShell.” 

Police officers at the Science Museum, London (photo by UKSCN)

Several hours later, 30 Metropolitan police officers arrived at the museum and threatened the scientists and students with arrest if they did not vacate the building. The activists left the museum but said they would come back the next day to continue the protest, tweeting: “the science museum would rather have kids arrested than drop their polluting sponsors but we will not be silenced.” 

In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the Science Museum said: 

Our onsite team calmly facilitated some protest activities within the museum for around five hours on Saturday afternoon. When the museum closed, the group of protesters was asked to leave in line with our duty of care for the health and safety of everyone in the building. The group peacefully left the museum just before 9pm. 

Activists protest Shell’s sponsorship at the Science Museum, London (photo by Naomi Polonsky/Hyperallergic)

The following morning, the climate activists returned to congregate at the museum’s entrance on Sunday alongside members of the public, holding banners with the phrase “Shell Out.” After the protest, which lasted six hours, the protestors left a display of cardboard signs by the main entrance to the museum with messages such as: “Drop Shell” and “Keep it in the Ground”. 

The protest coincides with a major shift in public opinion about the responsibility of oil and gas companies to cut carbon emissions in accordance with global climate policy. Last month, in an unprecedented ruling, a court in the Hague ordered Royal Dutch Shell — the parent company of Shell — to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of 2030. The Anglo-Dutch company was told it had a duty of care and that its level of emission reductions should be brought in line with the Paris Agreement.

The landmark case, which will have wide implications for the energy industry, was brought by the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE), alongside six other bodies and over 17,000 Dutch citizens. Earlier this year, another Dutch court ruled that Shell was responsible for damage caused by oil leaks in the Niger Delta and ordered the company to pay compensation to farmers.

In recent years, museums and galleries have increasingly come under pressure to sever ties with fossil fuel companies. Arts institutions in the UK, such as Tate, the National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company, have all announced their decision to end sponsorship from BP. It remains to be seen whether other institutions with ongoing sponsorship deals with oil and gas multinationals — including the Southbank Centre, British Museum, and Science Museum — will follow suit.

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...