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.
In pictures: Changing climate around the world
In pictures: Changing climate around the world
Calved icebergs from the nearby Twin Glaciers are seen floating on the water in Qaqortoq, Greenland
Oroumieh, one of the biggest saltwater lakes on Earth, has shrunk more than 80 percent to 1,000 square kilometers in the past decade. It shrinks mainly because of climate change, expanded irrigation for surrounding farms and the damming of rivers that feed the body of water
A boat navigates among calved icebergs from the nearby Twin Glaciers in Qaqortoq, Greenland. Boats are a crucial mode of transportation in the country that has few roads. As cities like Miami, New York and other vulnerable spots around the world strategize about how to respond to climate change, many Greenlanders simply do what theyve always done: adapt. 'Were used to change, said Greenlander Pilu Neilsen. 'We learn to adapt to whatever comes. If all the glaciers melt, well just get more land
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen after being inaugurated in Longyearbyen, Norway. The 'doomsday' seed vault built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters opened deep within an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard
A technician preparing to drain a vast underground lake at the Tete Rousse glacier on the Mont Blanc Alpine mountain, to avert a potentially disatrous flood. Some 65,000 cubic metres (2.3 million cubic feet) of water have gathered in a cavity, dangerously raising the pressure beneath the mountain, a favourite spot for holiday makers in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains
Cracked mud is picture at sunrise in the dried shores of Lake Gruyere affected by continuous drought near the western Switzerland village of Avry-devant-Pont. A leading climate scientist warned that Europe should take action over increasing drought and floods, stressing that some climate change trends were clear despite variations in predictions
Cattle graze on grassland that remains dry and brown at the height of the rainy season in south of Bakersfield, California. Its third straight year of unprecedented drought, California is experiencing its driest year on record, dating back 119 years, and dating back as far as 500 years, according to some scientists who study tree rings
An aerial view shows tents of flood-displaced people surrounded by water in southern Sehwan town. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) executive secretary Christiana Figueres met with people displaced by last year's devastating floods. Catastrophic monsoon rains that swept through the country in 2010 and affected some 20 million people, destroyed 1.7 million homes and damaged 5.4 million acres of arable land
An aerial view of flooding in North Wagga Wagga. Climate change is amplifying risks from drought, floods, storm and rising seas, threatening all countries but small island states, poor nations and arid regions in particular, UN experts warned
Damages caused by a landslide on the Pan-American highway near La Moramulca, 55 Km south of Tegucigalpa. International highways have been washed out, villages isolated and thousands of families have lost homes and crops in a region that the United Nations has classified as one of the most affected by climate change
A resident sprays water on a peatland fire in Pekanbaru district in Riau province on Indonesia's Sumatra island. Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands, is one of the world's biggest carbon emitters because of rampant deforestation. US Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday issued a clarion call for nations to do to more to combat climate change, calling it 'the world's largest weapon of mass destruction'
An excavator clearing a peatland forest area for a palm oil plantations in Trumon subdistrict, Aceh province, on Indonesia's Sumatra island. As Southeast Asia's largest economy grows rapidly, swathes of biodiverse forests across the archipelago of 17,000 islands have been cleared to make way for paper and palm oil plantations, as well as for mining and agriculture. The destruction has ravaged biodiversity, placing animals such as orangutans and Sumatran tigers in danger of extinction, while also leading to the release of vast amounts of climate change-causing carbon dioxide
Stagnant rain water with tannery waste make the Hazaribagh area in Old Dhaka as well as Buriganga River the most polluted. Each year during the seven-month long dry season between October and April the Buriganga River becomes totally stagnant with its upstream region drying up and becoming polluted from toxic waste from city industries
Waste water from Dhaka city drained to the River Buriganga contributes to its pollutions. On the World Water Day observed in 2007 under the theme Coping with Water Scarcity, under the leadership of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, DrikNEWS explores some of the images of the river. UN-Water has identified coping with water scarcity as part of the strategic issues and priorities requiring joint UN action. The theme highlights the significance of cooperation and importance of an integrated approach to water resource management of water at international, national and local levels
Heavy smog has been lingering in northern and eastern parts of China, disturbing the traffic, worsening air pollution and forcing the closure of schools. China's Environment Ministry said it will send inspection teams to provinces and cities most seriously affected by smog to ensure rules on fighting air pollution are being enforced
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.Reuse content