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Why it’s time to drop oil from our arts and culture

Activists take action against Shell.

Activists take action against Shell. by Kristian Buus

This week our campaign group went public with a series of emails between staff at the Science Museum and Shell obtained under the Freedom of Information Act – 315 pages in total. They revealed not just that Shell had influenced the museum’s ‘Atmosphere’ exhibition on climate science, but that it had repeatedly leant on the museum in order to protect its own interests.

Shell donates just £200,000 ($306,000) a year to the Science Museum and in return gains a social legitimacy that it does not deserve, by presenting itself as a generous philanthropist. Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum, claims: ‘this kind of external funding is vital in enabling us to remain free to millions of visitors each year.’ In reality, it is government policy to keep the museum free, and Shell’s donation only counts for roughly 0.25% of the museum’s overall income.

Shell then uses the ‘social licence to operate’ that it secures through such deals to undertake a range of reckless projects – including offshore drilling in the fragile Arctic, something only possible now that sea ice is rapidly diminishing. Shell’s meagre donation to the museum is dwarfed by the billions of dollars it has already spent on its failed attempts to drill off the coast of Alaska.

However, Ian Blatchford sees Shell as a valuable partner for the ‘Atmosphere’ exhibition, and has claimed that ‘not a single change to the curatorial programme resulted’ from the museum’s email exchanges with Shell. Given that a member of Shell’s staff explicitly writes, ‘there is now a CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] video that is currently being produced based on Shell’s CCS video,’ it is hard to believe that this is the case. Regardless of whether changes were made or not, a culture has developed at the Science Museum where Shell suggesting a public symposium be made ‘invite-only’ so that it can avoid public scrutiny is seen as a reasonable request. An institution that genuinely values its independence and transparency would have handed back Shell’s money there and then.

This kind of cognitive dissonance around the issue of oil sponsorship has seeped into too many of our cultural institutions. Currently, BP is sponsoring the British Museum’s ‘Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation’ exhibition at the same time as starting work on four new oil wells off Australia’s south coast that will go deeper than the ill-fated Macondo well, the source of the Gulf of Mexico spill. It seems the British Museum is blind to the irony of letting an oil company sponsor objects from the Torres Strait, where communities are already suffering the impacts of rising sea levels.

Elsewhere in London, Shell cleanses its brand by sponsoring the National Gallery. As a ‘Corporate Benefactor’, it weaves its logo among some of the world’s most famous paintings, paintings that inspire reflection upon our role in the world today. On Monday 1 June, as the emails emerged about Shell’s influence at the Science Museum, our performers joined forces with activists from the Reclaim the Power camp to hold a theatrical protest inside the National Gallery against Shell’s sponsorship. But the performance was also an act of solidarity with members of Britain’s Public and Commercial Services Union, which has now undertaken a total of 34 days of strike action against management plans to privatize up to two-thirds of the gallery’s workforce. Creeping privatization of our cultural institutions and cynical corporate sponsorship are two sides of the same coin.

The Science Museum’s partnership with Shell has its own unavoidable tensions. There is a clear consensus in the scientific community, from the International Energy Agency to researchers at University College London, that to have any chance of limiting global warming to two degrees we must leave around two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Shell’s business plan is fundamentally at odds with the climate science. In order to enact it, it must distort the narrative on climate science to the extent that burning fossil fuels well beyond their expiry date begins to sound like ‘a modest proposal’.

Ian Blatchford argued, in a blog responding to the email revelations, that in order to tackle climate change we must ‘engage with all the key players’ and not hide away ‘in a comfortable ivory tower’. In reality it is Ian Blatchford who is in the ivory tower. Did he miss Jonathan Porritt’s admission, after years of trying, that engaging with oil companies on climate change is futile? Did he somehow miss the years of climate negotiations and legislation derailed by the lobbying of oil companies? Was he on holiday when fossil fuel firms were repeatedly exposed as having funded climate change denial?

There is nothing comfortable about the world we will leave future generations if we fail to shift to a culture beyond oil. The Science Museum has the opportunity to stand up for the future of its visitors, both young and old, by cutting its ties to Shell and BP. If Ian Blatchford is serious about raising awareness of climate change in any meaningful way then his next action should be to end the museum’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry.

Chris Garrard is a campaigner with BP or not BP? You can find out more about the group and join its creative performance protests by visiting its website at bp-or-not-bp.org

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