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Do We Have to Start Worrying About the Integrity of Museums Now?

Big oil companies like Shell and BP sponsor museums for good PR. But they're beginning to affect what's on display, too.
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Shell logo. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

Shell logo. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

In a cultural climate where academia and politics are often pitted against one another, museums feel like one of the last remaining places where you can find objective science. (Barring museums that proudly reject scientific consensus, that is.) As it turns out, that idealistic notion of the museum safe haven may be in trouble. This weekend, the Guardian reported that Shell, a longtime supporter of the London Science Museum, has been trying to influence the presentation of the museum’s climate change exhibit.

Through a series of emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, the Guardian discovered that Shell was worried that the Science Museum’s "Atmosphere" exhibit might create "an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell’s operations." Shell execs asked whether a particular portion of the museum would be “invite only,” as the oil company wouldn't want the museum to "proactively open up a debate on the topic [of Shell’s operations]." The Guardian also found that David Hone, Shell’s climate change adviser and himself a former oil trader, made direct suggestions to the museum about what climate change information the public should be privy to.

While Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, said in a statement that "not a single change to the curatorial programme resulted from these email exchanges," it’s hard not to feel a little suspicious about this relationship—especially considering the extent of curatorial effect these corporate partnerships end up having on museums.

“Museum directors usually view corporations and government as valuable resources for the museum. Curators, however, view the new funders dimly because these funders literally, and symbolically, represent the reduction of curatorial power within the museum.”

A paper published by University of Surrey's Victoria D. Alexander investigating the effects of corporate support on American art museums in the '90s found that corporate sponsors indeed influenced content. Alexander's discovery—which she arrived at through extensive data analysis and interviews with museum personnel—showed that the influence of corporate investments is felt most starkly by museum curators.

"Museum directors usually view corporations and government as valuable resources for the museum," Alexander wrote. "Curators, however, view the new funders dimly because these funders literally, and symbolically, represent the reduction of curatorial power within the museum." Some curators, she wrote, referred to their outside corporate funder "as almost evil."

While the curation of art is different than that of science, Alexander’s conclusion speaks to a trend across all museums: "[C]hanges in funding go hand in hand with changes in exhibition format," as she wrote. The Guardian reported last month that these changes are happening in several museums: Shell is simply one cog in a larger PR trend of oil companies sponsoring art organizations.

BP, for example, has a long-term, multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with Tate Britain, the Royal Opera House, the British Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery. Mel Evans, an environmental activist and the author of Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, told the Guardian that oil companies like BP are not sponsoring museums out of an altruistic desire to bolster the arts; they want to "artwash" their image—that is, to utilize a prestigious association to distract the public from their harmful environmental practices.

Shell, it seems, falls right in line with this movement, positioning itself as a climate change-aware company—partially evidenced by the partnership with the Science Museum—all the while continuing tar sand extraction in Alberta and planning to drill in the Arctic. But does this type of contradictory sponsorship work? Is anyone actually fooled by the PR?

In 2006, researchers looked at corporations that sponsor, invest in, or otherwise brand themselves as socially responsible and the effect that it has on customers. Published in the Journal of Business Research, the authors found that a large firm's ethical investment is by no means a guarantee for favorable thoughts, attitudes, or beliefs toward said company. A determining factor in the success of a corporation's do-goodery is the "fit" of the particular initiative—the validity of the connection between the business monolith and the cause it's supporting. Consumers, it seems, can see straight through corporate BS, as "low-fit initiatives are likely to diminish overall attitude as well as perceptions of corporate credibility, corporate position, and purchase intention," the researchers wrote. Additionally, respondents to the study's survey thought no less of a firm when their initiative was perceived to be motivated by profit, which reinforces the notion "that skepticism is not driven simply by a firm being profit-motivated, but rather by a discrepancy between stated objectives and firm actions."

Shell's biggest PR blunder wasn't its money-mongering; it was getting caught in an ideological mix-up. More than doubting Shell's ethics, it makes you wonder: Is nothing sacred anymore?