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XR Cambridge questions Science Museum’s links to big oil

The upcoming Science Museum talks on climate change have created a storm of controversy which has resulted in speakers withdrawing and questions raised about the museum’s links to fossil fuel organisations.

The environmentalist and writer George Monbiot has already withdrawn from the March 31 event titled ‘Our Future Planet: Global Greenhouse Gas Removal’, saying on Twitter: “I’ve now withdrawn from the event I was doing at the Science Museum, after discovering that it is still taking sponsorship money from the oil companies BP and Equinor. Such companies use these deals to sustain their social licence to operate – ie to destroy the living planet.

“When I accepted the museum’s invitation, I naively imagined those days were over. I mean, what respectable organisation still takes money from this planetary death machine? I love the Science Museum, but it’s hard to express how disappointed I feel.”

Author and journalist Mark Lynas has also withdrawn his participation in the event.

Many museums and cultural organisations have cut their ties to oil companies because of their role in fuelling the climate emergency: Tate, Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company are no longer sponsored by BP, and the National Theatre, Southbank Centre, National Gallery and British Film Institute are no longer partnered with Shell. And in 2019, the Edinburgh Science Festival announced that it would no longer accept fossil fuel sponsorship.

However, the director of the Science Museum, Ian Blackford, told the FT in 2019: “Even if the Science Museum were lavishly publicly funded I would still want to have sponsorship from the oil companies.”

He later clarified that remark, saying: “The major energy companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions to the urgent global challenge of climate change and we are among the many organisations that regard the approach of severing ties as being unproductive.”

Lord Rowan Williams speaks at a Shire Hall. Lord Williams of Oystermouth is the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Picture: Richard Marsham
Lord Rowan Williams speaks at a Shire Hall. Lord Williams of Oystermouth is the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Picture: Richard Marsham

An open letter by 48 respected naturalists, climate experts and scientists in 2018 calling for the the Science Museum to cut ties with big oil went unanswered.

The unresolved issue has resulted in an open letter orchestrated by XR Cambridge expresses concern that such deals “allow the fossil fuel companies to legitimise their extractive activities”.

The letter, published on March 12, said: “The extent of the Science Museum’s participation in the promotion of BP’s brand became clear recently. Through an FOI request, Culture Unstained obtained email records between the director of the Science Museum and a BP employee showing that the former was actively working to counter negative publicity directed toward BP. While other arts, cultural and academic institutions are increasingly refusing to take money from the oil industry, the Science Museum appears to be doubling down on its support.

“The Science Museum’s decision to hold the Climate Talks series while actively engaging in the legitimation of the oil industry is worse than hypocrisy - it is helping to sustain the very social license that allows these corporations to continue profiting from a global crisis.”

It was signed by organisations including Cambridge Friends of the Earth, Cambridge People’s Assembly Against Austerity, Cambridge SU Ethical Affairs Campaign, Cambridge Zero Carbon Society and Clare Divestment Campaign. Individual signatories included Cambridge residents and Cambridge alums, along with Queens’ College Fellow Andrew Zurcher, members of Cambridge University Academic Staff; Councillor Grace Hadley, a Cambridge University alum, councillor for Cambridge City Council and employee of the University of Cambridge, plus Dr Rowan Williams, Honorary Fellow at Magdalene College.

The letter included an appeal to Dr Emily Shuckburgh requesting that the director of Cambridge Zero at the University of Cambridge withdraw her planned contribution to the March 31 event due to the museum’s ongoing involvement with big oil.

Dr Shuckburgh has been contacted for comment.

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