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protesters dressed as 'Greenwash Busters'

Extinction Rebellion protesters dressed as 'Greenwash Busters' stage a protest on May 19, 2021 outside the Science Museum in South Kensington. Protesters and scientists gathered both inside and outside the Science Museum to demonstrate against oil giant Shell's sponsorship of the Our Future Planet climate change exhibition. (Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Science Museum Just Killed Its 'Own Reputation,' Says Greta Thunberg After Docs Reveal Gag Clause With Shell

"It essentially creates a 'chilling effect,' where museum staff must refrain from speaking openly about the reality of Shell's activities."

Andrea Germanos

The London Science Museum is facing fresh criticism from climate campaigners following revelations that the institution signed a "gagging clause" with Shell banning it from criticizing the oil giant as part of an exhibition sponsorship agreement.

"The 'Science' Museum just killed irony (and their own reputation)," Fridays for Future founder Greta Thunberg tweeted Thursday.

Thunberg's tweet was in response to Channel 4 News' reporting on the contract for Shell's controversial sponsorship of the "Our Future Planet" exhibition, which opened in May and includes carbon capture technologies. Those include ones "Shell either has commercial interest in, researches, or actually operates," Politico EU reported Friday.

According to the Channel 4 News, which first reported on the document, the agreement requires the museum to not “make any statement or issue any publicity or otherwise be involved in any conduct or matter that may reasonably be foreseen as discrediting or damaging the goodwill or reputation of the sponsor."

What's more, Science Museum director Ian Blatchford, in emails, called on Shell to “champion” the exhibition to the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI)—a fossil fuel industry body—to elicit additional funding, Channel 4 reported.

Research and campaign group Culture Unstained obtained through Freedom of Information requests documents related to the sponsorship agreement. In an analysis, the group said the gag clause was "hugely problematic."

"It essentially creates a 'chilling effect,' where museum staff must refrain from speaking openly about the reality of Shell's activities because it could be seen as damaging the company's goodwill or reputation. This is a particular problem due to the contested nature of Shell's business operations and the fact it is sponsoring an exhibition about climate change solutions," the group wrote.

Blatchford's pitch to Shell that the company tout the exhibit to OGCI in a bid for further financial sponsorship reflects poorly on the institution, Culture Unstained added. From its analysis:

At the eleventh hour, the Science Museum Group walked away from the proposed sponsorship deal with the OGCI because just one of its 12 member oil and gas companies had fallen short of the museum's chosen standard for sponsors, the ratings given to them by the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI). Given the terrible past record and climate-crashing future plans of all members of the OGCI, this demonstrates just how weak the museum's ethical criteria are. The bar the museum sets for its sponsors is far lower than the museum's own aims on climate, which are to reduce its emissions in line with the Paris target of 1.5°C. This ethical mismatch has allowed the museum to justify Shell as the exhibition sponsor when its emissions reduction plans fall far short of what's required for 1.5°C.

“What kind of science museum doesn't base its decisions on climate science but backs Big Oil's last-ditch attempts to protect its profits and reputation instead?" said Jess Worth, co-director of Culture Unstained, in a statement that put the revelations in the context of current extreme weather events.

"As we witness floods and wildfires across the world, it's morally bankrupt for the Science Museum Group to suggest Shell and other oil companies are on the right decarbonization path," said Worth. "These companies have repeatedly got failing grades for their performance on climate change, but somehow the museum has found one of the only examiners that will give them a pass. And the only way they can do that is by not scoring them on whether their business plans are actually aligned with keeping the world below 1.5°C."

"We condemn the Science Museum's decision to accept this sponsorship and provide Shell with an opportunity for brazen green-washing."

"The decision by senior management to then sign a gagging clause to protect Shell puts other staff in a very difficult position," she said, "and this should be of great concern to the museum sector as a whole.”

Ecosystem ecologist Emma Sayer of Lancaster University, who worked on the carbon capture in forests part of the exhibition, also expressed criticism in the face of the revelations, and told Channel 4 she asked for her name to be removed.

Sayer had also previously voiced concerns about Shell's involvement, saying in spring she wouldn't have taken part in the exhibition had she known ahead of time of the oil company's role.

“It never even occurred to me that the Science Museum would team up with Shell on a carbon exhibition," said Sayer, The Museums Association reported in April.

“When I found out I was very embarrassed," she said. "I don't like having my name associated with Shell. It's a great exhibition but it's just such a shame that it's tainted by oil sponsorship."

Sayer's concerns were part of a chorus of criticism directed at the London museum after it accepted the exhibition sponsorship from Shell.

The U.K. Student Climate Network (UKSCN), for example, previously said in an open letter to the museum that the "fact that Shell, a company with a vested interest in the continued use of fossil fuels, is financially supporting an exhibition about climate change solutions is appalling."

"We condemn the Science Museum's decision to accept this sponsorship and provide Shell with an opportunity for brazen green-washing," the group wrote.


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