First came the Adani Group, a conglomerate with major holdings in coal. Then Shell, the fossil fuel giant. And now it was the turn of the Norwegian oil and gas company Equinor. The London Science Museum has signed sponsorship contracts with all of them, some of which included a gagging clause that prevented the museum from saying anything that could damage the fossil fuel companies’ reputation.
The Guardian and the investigative journalism organization Point Source accessed the most recent sponsorship agreement between the museum and Equinor, which funds a current exhibit in the museum, called Wonderlab. The deal states that the museum and its trustees can’t “at any time,” while the exhibit is on, make statements that could discredit the sponsor.
Both Equinor and the Science Museum declined to tell the reporters how much the fossil fuel giant paid to sponsor the exhibition, which invites people to “come and think like a scientist” and is hosted in the “Equinor Gallery” of the museum. People can see a lightning strike, play with forces on giant slides and travel through space under the stars.
A questionable standard
Since climate change is arguably the biggest scientific issue of our days, you’d expect science museums to do their best to inform the population of what’s going on. Having a gag clause that can significantly hamper transparent communication sounds like a big problem for museums and it’s not hard to see why this is a problem.
Scientists and environmental groups argue the Science Museum has lost its credibility to discuss the impacts of the fossil fuel sector on the environment because of this agreement. In fact, this isn’t the first time something like this happened: in 2021, two scientists rejected their work to be included in the museum’s collection after an agreement with Shell was revealed.
Back then, the museum opened an exhibition on climate change called “Our Future Planet” that highlighted the promise of technologies to remove polluting emissions from the atmosphere. The exhibit was sponsored by Shell. The museum’s director said they “retained editorial control” but the actual contract showed this wasn’t the case.
An activist group, Culture Unstrained, obtained Shell’s sponsorship contract with the science Museum under the freedom of information act laws. The contract reads that the museum couldn’t take any action that would be seen as discrediting or damaging the goodwill or reputation” of the sponsor (Shell) during the time the exhibition was on.
Shell had clearly a lot to gain from the exhibit, featuring technologies that fossil fuel companies say will allow them to keep selling fossil fuels while reducing emissions. Research bodies say these solutions will be needed to stabilize the climate, but warn they are still nascent and with no clarity on their commercial feasibility.
The Science Museum also took funding from a subsidiary of the Adani Group to inaugurate the “Energy Revolution” gallery, set to open this year. The museum said the gallery will “explore the latest climate science and the energy revolution needed to cut global dependence on fossil fuels.” Campaigners called the decision “reckless” and “astonishing.”
But the problem goes much further than this specific museum. Fossil fuel companies are usual sponsors of museum exhibits and cultural institutions in general. But their donations have come under increased scrutiny amid the climate crisis. Allowing companies to put their logos on museum walls perpetuates their social license to operate, campaigners argue.