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Greta Thunberg says Science Museum ‘killed its reputation’ after it is revealed Shell sponsorship came with gagging order

Culture Unstained activists say contract clause is ‘chilling’ but museum group says cutting ties with energy groups is ‘unproductive’

Greta Thunberg tweeted last night that "The 'Science' Museum just killed irony (and their own reputation)" over gagging order from Shell

The Science Museum in London signed a “gagging clause” with Shell preventing museum staff and trustees from criticising the oil company, claims the activist group Culture Unstained. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information act relate to Shell’s sponsorship of the climate exhibition Our Future Planet, which opened in May.

Culture Unstained claims that “Clause 6.7 of the Sponsorship Agreement prevents the Science Museum Group, and its trustees, from saying or doing anything that could be seen as ‘damaging the goodwill or reputation’ of its sponsor. In effect, it is a form of gagging clause.” The sponsorship fee is redacted in the documents.

Last night the environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that “the ‘Science’ museum just killed irony (and their own reputation)”. The museum also faced a wave of criticism from scientists and environmentalists when the sponsorship deal with the Anglo-Dutch oil group was announced in April. Meanwhile, Emma Sayer, a reader in ecosystem ecology at Lancaster University, told Channel 4 News that she wants her name removed from the exhibition.

The campaign group adds: “This clause may be regarded as standard and uncontroversial by the Science Museum group and some other organisations but, in this setting, it is highly 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.”

Culture Unstained also revealed documentation showing that the Science Museum sought sponsorship for Our Future Planet from the fossil-fuel based Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a consortium of chief executives from oil and gas companies such as Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil and Shell.

But the museum terminated these discussions. “At the eleventh hour, the Science Museum Group walked away from the proposed sponsorship deal with the OGCI because just one of its twelve 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,” says Culture Unstained.

Jonathan Newby, the acting director and chief executive at the Science Museum Group, says in a statement that that the group is committed to engaging people in the “vital issue” of climate change. “Energy companies need to play a big part in that change and we regard the blanket approach demanded by some campaigners of severing all relationships with energy companies as unproductive,” he adds.

At all times the Science Museum retains editorial control of the content in its exhibitions and galleries, Newby says. “We entirely reject the unsubstantiated claim that our curators were in any way inhibited in carrying out their vital role in an expert, independent and thorough manner,” he adds. The Art Newspaper understands that the sponsorship agreement in question with Shell was entered into after content work on Our Future Planet was concluded.

A Shell spokesperson told Channel 4 news: “We fully respect the museum’s independence. That’s why its exhibition on carbon capture matters and why we supported it. Debate and discussion, among anyone who sees it [the exhibition], are essential.”