Shell, Signs, Sponsorship and the Science Museum

This post is my attempt to say something about last week’s “Science Museum goes climate sceptic, sponsored by SHELL!” fuss. I also hope to provide a bit of a catchup for those who didn’t notice the story/ have forgotten it already. My argument is largely that the Science Museum isn’t a scientific institution, it is a public one. We should expect it to take a broader view. I also think that if they are taking Shell’s money, they should reflect Shell’s views on climate change: as transparent as possible, warts and all. Don’t let Shell hide behind the museum’s claims to “editorial control”. I want the gory details. Moreover, such views should placed next to similar statements from scientists and environmental campaigners. These views, and more, are all ones a national museum of science should be active in collecting and exhibiting.

But first, the catchup. Early last week, the Science Museum issued a press release announcing details of a new gallery about climate change, scheduled to open next November. Cue outrage. There was always going to be a fuss. People love to bitch about the Science Museum, it presses buttons of personal nostalgia, national prestige, controversies of public spending and anxieties about the future all at once. We also, increasingly, seem to love to bitch about climate change. What fulled much of last week’s particular fuss focused on two points, and their possible interaction. Firstly, the museum signaled a desire to debate the controversy rather than preach at their visitors:

“Our objective is to minimise the shrill tone and emotion that bedevils discussion of this subject, satisfying the interests and needs of those who accept that human-induced climate change is real, those who are unsure, and those who do not”.

A point which many seemed to take as a nod to “deniers” of human-caused climate change. Secondly, Shell would be sponsoring the gallery. Although it is also worth noting that Siemens, the Garfield Weston Foundation and Defra are also chipping in, Shell is the primary sponsor, and the idea of an oil company bankrolling a national exhibition about climate change does boarder on the self-satirising (and that’s without getting into Garfield Weston’s links to Primark). Reuters, The Daily Mail and The Times all covered it, but Ben Goldacre sums it up with the simple comment: “Science Museum exhibition “neutral” on climate change: sponsored by Shell, not stylish”.

It’s worth noting a bit of history to these issues. BP sponsored the museum’s Energy gallery, and Shell provided funds for the recent rebuilding of Launch Pad (details of FOI request relating to this). It’s probably also worth noting that Nintendo are secondary sponsors for Launch Pad, a point some might find more controversial in a child-orientated gallery. Dig back even further, and there’s the issue of the old BNFL sponsored nuclear gallery, with its ever-so-easy-to-miss bomb section (neat bit of ’80s sociology of science on this). Sponsorship aside, it’s also worth remembering the museum’s somewhat bungled attempt at public engagement over climate change with their Prove It! exhibition (critique from Guardian art critic).

Yesterday the museum (finally) released some clarification, stressing their content will be evidence led and the museum retains editorial control despite sponsors, but that they worry that too-narrowly a conceived gallery will alienate audiences. The new gallery, they underline, will fulfill what they see as a:

“need for a public space where people who agree, who are unsure, and who disagree that humans are affecting the climate system are able to explore the science and make up their own minds”

Personally, I’d say “fair enough” on this point (see final paragraphs of this post). Goldacre’s point still stands though: Shell sponsorship is “not stylish”. Moreover, I’d argue that in the largely visual medium of a museum, the style issue is crucial. After-all, the Science Museum are well known for their obsession with design.

I was a gallery hand at the museum when the BP-branded Energy gallery opened. We were briefed to explain to visitors that the museum had maintained control throughout the exhibition design. As the gallery-hand briefing went, editorial control was part of the contract, the museum wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Moreover, BP wouldn’t have wanted to connect themselves with the museum if they were seen as easily bought. No one’s brand would benefit from anything other than complete editorial control. For what it is worth, I believe this. However, I also saw the ways in which visitors would react when they found out about BP’s involvement. You cannot deny the semiotics of the simple “sponsorship by” sign. Maybe the museum does maintain editorial control. But the visitor turning up on a rainy bank holiday doesn’t know this. They shouldn’t necessarily be expected to either. They see the logo, this quite reasonably sets off their bullshit detector, which in turn affects their experience of the gallery.

Energy Futures

Panel in Energy Gallery, Science Museum

I have two points where I feel I can defend the Science Museum on, although not without some critique of them and the situation they find themselves working within. Firstly, an aspect in the press release we really should be making more of: the gallery is going to cost £4m. Where do we expect this money to come from? Now, we could argue that’s an unnecessary overspend. I might have some sympathy with that point of view (see note above on obsession with design), but even done reasonably cheaply, if it’s going to look respectable, it’s going to cost. Another useful snippet of information gleaned from Science Museum training: when national museums still charged admission in the 1990s, the government subsidised each £9 ticket by roughly a further £20. This point is worth remembering if museums start charging again: we’re still subsidising them, heavily, but we’ll probably subsidising a smaller and richer set of visitors. Museums are expensive.

Secondly, I do, quite seriously, agree that the museum should be highly attuned to the dangers of alienating people. Mike Hulme made a good point when he talked to our students last year: we should take “climate agnostics” seriously. We can fight over whether or not we like the religious metaphor another time, what I want to emphasise here is the existence of those people who, for whatever reason, aren’t sure about climate change and find Greenpeace, Shell, the deniers and the climate scientists as potentially annoying and distrustful as each other. I also want to stress the need to take their views seriously. Throw your hands up in the air with incredulity at their stupidity if you like: see how far that gets you. As Chris Rapley told the Times:

The climate science community, by and large, has concluded that humans have intervened in the system in a way that will lead to climate change. But that is their story. It’s not our story, so that can’t be our conclusion. If we take sides we will alienate some of the people who want to be part of the discussion.

The Science Museum, unlike the Natural History Museum next-door, isn’t a scientific institution. A fair number of ex-scientists work there, but they exist to talk about science rather than do it. This is as much a benefit as it is a failing of the place. It is the “science” museum; it should reflect what the scientific community say. However, it exists in and serves a broader community, it exists and serves to bring the messages of the scientific community into that broader community, it has to be careful about taking sides.

This reflects a very basic tenet of professionalised/ academic science communication (which many of the museum staff will be well versed in): patronise publics and they’ll only ignore you all the more. It’s more democratic to listen to outside voices, but it’s also basic PR: at the very least pretend you respect the people you want to convince, otherwise why on earth would you think they’ll listen? Conversation is where cultural change will happen. To this end, bring the more extreme ends of the debate. Sample those views, collect and curate them, even use them as a way into to showing off how much stronger the scientific case is. The Science Museum should provide a site for the charting of where and how we disagree on science; where these ideas have all come from and how we might (individually and collectively) move them on.

The Science Museum should maintain its editorial control, but include Shell’s views on climate change too. If Shell are going to have involvement in this gallery, I want to see what they think about climate change, warts and all. Include statements from the other sponsors too, and more: I want to see samples of Greenpeace, Plane Stupid and Christopher Booker for that matter. Also, importantly, a load of less famous people/ groups in between. Please note, I don’t expect Greenpeace et al to have to pay for their involvement. I should also note, this includes Greenpeace having the balls to join in as much as the Science Museum inviting them. Maybe such debate on climate change cannot be done without the symbols and ideas of one point of view pissing another off. Maybe, as George Monbiot wrote recently, we rarely change our mind, especially about climate science. Still, I am keen to see the Science Museum try. I just hope Shell, Defra and Garfield Weston aren’t the only controversial logos present on the gallery floor.

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8 thoughts on “Shell, Signs, Sponsorship and the Science Museum

  1. Jacob

    Hi AliceIf the Science Museum accept money from Shell to present the climate change argument as a scientific debate (which it isn't), then they're complicit in promoting Shell's arguments for money – any platitudes about 'warts and all' points of view, or retaining 'editorial control' just seem to be salve for the consciences of the people who run the museum.Perhaps if the climate change debate was used to illustrate the difference between scientific debate and debates about science, that would be more honest. But I don't think Shell would stump up for that..?Jake

    Reply
  2. Alice

    Jake, I take your point, but they aren't accepting money to present any arguments from Shell (either at the moment, or in the approach I suggest in my blogpost) – it's all Science Museum led. Really.I think you are right to be sceptical of the museum staff's "salve for the conscience" (i.e. my point about it setting off bullshit detectors), but I'd also say that I know a lot of these people personally and I, for what it is worth, personally trust them to have maintained control. It's not a matter of Shell phoning-in an exhibition to the museum (or even being asked to sign off on one) – contemporary sponsorship contracts just don't work like that. Read the 80s piece on the museum's reactions to BNFL I've lined to, you might like it, and it'll give a decent bit of background.I'm not sure about your suggestion that climate change isn't a scientific debate. I'd say it is. I'd also say it is a social, political and cultural one too. Moreover, I'd say it's important to think about all of these aspects to the issue, probably avoiding making divides between "scientific debate" and "debates about science" (which I'm not entirely sure are helpful).Alice

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I think the moral of this is "don't believe everything you read in the papers". Especially the Times / Daily Mail. Chris Rapley, the Science Museum's director, issued a rapid correction to the media's misleading spin and made it clear that the museum is going to stick 100% to the science and not pander to the opinions of the sceptics or Greenpeace or anyone else for that matter.As for sponsorship by Shell, so what? Like you said, BP sponsored the energy gallery which made it quite clear that human-induced climate change was happening. I agree with your point about bullshit detectors, but that's more to do with people's misconceptions about how things work. I've heard people saying that because an opinion polling company has a member of a political party on their board, all their polls must be skewed to favour that party. It's rubbish – it just doesn't work that way.

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  4. Alice

    Dear "Anonymous".I'd disagree that the Science Museum were that rapid in their response. Look at the dates on those press releases…I also disagree that we should be so dismissive of visitors', as you put it "misconceptions about how things work". Museums have a broad audience which they should respect and serve. It is not their role to complain about the deficits in public knowledge. That includes working *with* bullshit detectors rather than in ignorance of or against them. So, sponsorship by Shell = so a lot of things, still. Even if I do also think it's something the museum will probably have to deal with, they need to deal with it better. Alice

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Funding science communication « through the looking glass

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