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Science Museum Board Member Resigns Over Oil Sponsorship

One of the UK’s foremost climate scientists, Professor Chris Rapley, has resigned from his position on the Science Museum’s advisory board citing the institution’s ongoing commercial relationship with the global energy company, Shell. Professor Rapley argued that the fossil fuel sponsorship money the Science Museum Group has taken is incompatible with the wider aims of the museum. “I disagree with the museum’s ongoing willingness to accept [this form of]… sponsorship,” he said.

The resignation of such a learned scientist will no doubt be a cause for embarrassment for the Science Museum. After all, Professor Rapley served as the director of the museum group from 2007 to 2010. What’s more, his decision to leave his current role comes shortly before the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow that the UK is hosting. Furthermore, the museum has already seen protests from activists and campaigners who have complained vociferously about the museum’s decision to work with companies that are associated with fossil fuel exploitation, such as Shell.

Stark Choices

“It is a matter of judgment,” Rapley said. According to him, it is a question of whether the museum should be uncompromising in the face of public protest or whether it should try to persuade the public with a softer form of diplomacy and influence their actions that way. “The Science Museum Group has adopted the softer approach,” the professor said. He added that while he respected their right to arrive at that decision, given the reality of the climate crisis, he felt he needed to bring his tenure at the museum to an end. Calling for the world to get rid of its reliance on fossil fuels as soon as possible, Rapley said that recent academic analysis had already brought into question the commitment of the energy industry to meet this aim.

According to the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN), it was only after that organisation reached out to Professor Rapley directly that his decision was taken. Rapley, who currently works as a professor of climate science at University College London, wrote back to the student network in early October to say that he had reached the decision to resign from the museum’s advisory board. This is perhaps all the more remarkable given the academic’s previously stated position with regard to the Science Museum. During his time as the museum’s director, Rapley oversaw a sponsorship deal with Shell. This was put in place to provide funding for the institution’s Atmosphere Gallery, a deal with the energy conglomerate that the professor publicly defended at the time.

A Nuanced Approach

Rapley’s letter to the UKSCN made it clear that he had not completed changed his position. He wrote that there were a number of ‘powerful arguments’ that meant that influential bodies, like museums, should cooperate with oil and gas companies. He stated that this was part of what would be needed if the world is to successfully make the transition to a carbon-free energy system around the world. Despite this, the professor said that accepting such sponsorship money was not something the Science Museum Group should be doing at the moment and that he hoped it would ‘reconsider its position’ in the near future.

At the moment, Shell is the principal sponsor of the Science Museum’s ‘Our Future Planet’ exhibition, something that has a heavy emphasis on carbon capture and storage technologies. This commercial relationship has drawn criticism from numerous climate scientists as well as some contributors to the exhibition itself.

Referring to Professor Rapley’s resignation, Ian Blatchford, who is the current director of the Science Museum Group, said that he respected the decision to step down from the advisory role. Blatchford went on to state that he was ‘deeply grateful’ for the support and advice the institution had received from Professor Rapley. A spokesperson for the London branch of the UKSCN said that it was ‘a shame’ that the museum’s board prioritised its relationships with some of the planet’s most polluting fossil fuel firms rather than building on its relationships with climate scientists.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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