Alex Mustard's photograph "Rig diver" shows a cormorant bird fishing underneath an oil rig and was included in the 2016 competition. (courtesy Alex Mustard)

London’s Natural History Museum signed gag clauses in three contracts with the Danish energy company Ørsted, which has sponsored its Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition since 2016, documents reveal. The provisions bar the museum from damaging the corporate sponsor’s reputation until the most recent agreement expires in July of this year. The museum now says it will no longer allow these types of clauses in its contracts.

According to identical clauses in the 2016, 2017, and current 2021 contracts, obtained by the investigative journalism unit Point Source, reported on by the Guardian, and shared with Hyperallergic, the museum agreed that neither the institution nor any third party acting on its behalf would issue statements or publicity that could be seen as “discrediting or damaging” to the reputation of Ørsted.

Ørsted was known as Dong Energy at the time of the first contract in 2016. The following year, Dong announced its divestment from fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy and changed its name. The museum re-signed the corporate sponsorship contract in 2017 and once more in 2021, both times again agreeing to the gag clause.

Ørsted has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment, but a spokesperson from the company told the Guardian that it would “not seek to influence the Natural History Museum’s views or limit its ability to provide its usual high standard of independent, critical, fact-based commentary on any aspect of the energy industry sector, should it choose to do so.”

A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the institution retains “absolute editorial control” over its exhibitions and that “any suggestions sponsors have influence over the content we share is categorically untrue.” The spokesperson explained that this type of clause is “standard” for corporate partnerships, but that after the current 2021 contract with Ørsted expires on July 2, the museum will no longer include such clauses in its agreements.

Online, the documents prompted a barrage of criticism, with some accusing the museum of “greenwashing,” a term describing organizations’ attempts to hide behind an image of sustainability while concealing links that disprove that image. Last year, London’s Science Museum came under fire for a similar clause with oil company Shell, which sponsored an exhibition featuring carbon-mitigation technologies titled Our Future Planet. Elsewhere in London, the British Museum has become a frequent target of climate activists for its sponsorship agreement with British Petroleum (BP), which is set to expire in 2023.

Editor’s note 1/12/23 1pm EDT: A previous version of this article described the contracts between the Natural History Museum and Ørsted as “leaked”; the contracts were acquired via the Freedom of Information Act, according to Wil Crisp, editor of Point Source. The article was also edited to describe Point Source as a “unit” instead of a blog.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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