Today we bring you an article by Christina Errico, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Education Master’s program. For Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Museum Studies students, students research and report on a recent topic regarding museums in the news.
In December of 2010, the London Science Museum opened its new Atmosphere gallery that focused on climate science of the past, present, and future. Yet when Shell, a major petro-chemical company and one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world, became a principal sponsor of the Atmosphere gallery, company executives began suggesting changes to the gallery’s content which caused many outsiders to call into question the museum’s ethical integrity. While museums should be avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest, it seems that the London Science Museum disregarded this ethical code in order to preserve its partnership with Shell.
According to the 315 pages of emails between Shell and the London Science Museum released in 2014, Shell politely requested to be described as an “energy company” rather than a “petro-chemical company,” and, if possible, they’d “prefer the wording [in the gallery] not to focus on pollution and environmental damage.” The contents of these emails do not necessarily prove that the museum agreed to censor information in the gallery, but the issue with these emails is that there was no public transparency and no accountability for the emails by the museum after they had been released. The museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, stated in a blog post that “not a single change to the curatorial program resulted from these email exchanges.” Yet the evidence from the emails and from visitor reviews suggests that there is a very real possibility this is not true.
On Atmosphere’s “About Our Funders” webpage, Shell states that they are “working hard to build a new energy system while supporting a deeper understanding of climate science.” Yet if Shell was committed to a deeper understanding of climate science, why would they ask the museum to censor the connection between energy use and pollution, one that has been recognized by scientists, the public, and even the government? As a matter of fact, Shell told the museum in an email that a drilling company working for Shell “pleaded guilty to eight felony charges tied to pollution, propulsion, and record keeping problems with the two drilling rigs that bored Arctic oil wells for Shell.” Even after learning about this incident the museum continued its partnership with Shell, seemingly without a second thought.
While the central argument against Shell and the London Science Museum focuses largely on the appearance of a conflict of interest, the relevance of this issue for the greater museum community is that even the appearance of a conflict of interest can cause the museum to lose its public’s trust. And, sadly, this is not the first time a corporate sponsorship of a museum exhibit has caused a public trust issue. To provide two additional examples, Genoways and Ireland question the ethical soundness of a tobacco company funding a tour of the U.S. Constitution and ask whether “funding from pest exterminator Orkin compromised the intellectual integrity of a major Smithsonian exhibition on insects.” Substitute Shell for Orkin and the London Science Museum for the Smithsonian and one could ask the very same question regarding the Atmosphere gallery. If issues like this continue to occur, the risk is that the entire museum field may begin to lose the trust of not just their local communities, but the greater public as well.
Ron Chew, former director for the struggling Wing Luke Asian Museum, points out that “museums, as respected educational institutions, have the power to shape public opinion.” That kind of power can be wonderfully inspiring and used to great good, but it can only be attained if the museum is seen as a respected institution by the public. Museums like the London Science Museum can therefore serve as a warning and a lesson for other museums: if they are to have the formidable power to shape public thought, they must maintain, or gain back, their public trust and respectability.