'I’d prefer the wording not to focus on environmental damage': Shell and The Science Museum's toxic relationship has just been exposed

Big oil companies are using sponsorship deals to help push their agenda

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The true nature of big oil sponsorships was exposed last week, after it was discovered that Shell had sought to influence the content of the climate change exhibition "Atmosphere", which it sponsors at the Science Museum.

Emails obtained via Freedom of Information requests show how the company positioned its own staff as advisors: “Regarding the gallery update, can I check whether you have touched base with David Hone to see if he would like to participate in the content refresh?” read one email from May last year.

On top of this, the oil company also called into question gallery staff’s curatorial decisions. "In terms of energy use, urbanization, public transport, communications, etc," they wrote in February 2014, "I wondered if this was something you wanted to reflect? I’d prefer the wording not to focus on pollution and environmental damage.”

They even restricted event plans in an attempt to stymie critical attention. “Regarding the rubbish archive project," another email from May 2014 says, "[name redacted] and I have some concerns on this exhibition, particularly as it creates an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell’s operations [...] As you know we receive a great deal of interest around our art sponsorships so need to ensure we do not pro-actively open up a debate on the topic. Will it be an invite only event?”.

All of this is part of a wider strategy to establish a social licence to operate – a kind of guise of social acceptability in the eyes of consuming publics. Shell PR executives have already openly discussed the ways in which they can “build, maintain and defend Shell’s capital” in response to growing concern around climate change.

Such a cynical PR strategy is fundamental to cultural sponsorships for oil companies, and is manifested exquisitely by Shell in this scenario. Shell secured several key benefits: it restrained potential criticism of the oil industry as a cause of climate change by focusing attention on growing cities; it created a mirage of climate change as uncertain; and the sponsorship gave the company valuable "artwash", transforming the company from the cause of climate change to the provider of solutions.

The trick here is all about who tells the story. Owning the narrative is fundamental to PR, and for Shell, the climate change story could – and is – causing millions of people worldwide to question and criticise the oil industry. The growing fossil fuel divestment movement has seen SOAS, Glasgow, Bedfordshire and Stanford universities all commit to divest funds from the fossil fuel sector. Shell’s strategy in response is to attempt to divert attention from the oil industry as the cause of climate change, and to try and assert a role as the driver of a future "energy mix". 

As Jeff Nesbit of US think tank Climate Nexus writes: “That shift in focus – to 'what is not known' – is what any good public relations pro (or defense attorney) hopes for when the science, evidence and facts are stacked against you. And, in that regards, Shell got precisely what it had hoped for with this sponsorship.”

Just like BP's sponsorship of Tate Britain’s “Walk Through British Art” sets up BP as some kind of curator or guide in the gallery, through sponsorship oil companies can weasel their way into a position in which they're able to appear as a storyteller of narratives that could question their very existence (such as ones that challenge big oil and its impact on the planet). This hugely undermines the work of artists, curators and other gallery staff – and does a disservice to the experience of museum visitors.

That's why its hugely important to see so many artists and cultural workers calling on the UK's most-loved galleries and museums to drop oil sponsors BP and Shell - from Emma Thompson, Caryl Churchill and Mark Rylance, to the Tate staff who recently brought a PCS union motion to end BP sponsorship at Tate and British Museum. Their message is resoundingly clear: its time to draw a line under oil sponsorship.

Mel Evans is the author of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, published by Pluto Press April 2015. She is an artist and campaigner associated with Liberate Tate and Platform. As well as making unsanctioned performance works at Tate and writing on oil sponsorship of the arts, she creates theatre pieces in the City of London that examine culture, finance and Big Oil.

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