The open letter argues that the museum's sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry gives the industry a 'social license' to operateLucas Maddalena

Extinction Rebellion Cambridge have published an open letter calling for Director of Cambridge Zero Dr Emily Shuckburgh to step down from the Science Museum’s ‘Climate Talks’ series due to ongoing controversy over fossil fuel sponsorship. This follows environmentalists George Monbiot and Mark Lynas announcing that they will be withdrawing from the climate talks. The letter now has over 150 signatures including those of George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

The open letter criticises the museum’s sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry, arguing that this gives fossil fuel companies the “social license” to operate. The letter also criticised the financial, social, and academic connections between Cambridge Zero and key figures in the fossil fuel industry and called on Dr Shuckburgh to ‘send a strong signal that this needs to change’.

While other institutions are cutting ties under increasing political pressure The Science Museum still holds extensive ties with the fossil fuel industry. The Science Museum’s STEM Training Academy is funded by BP, its Atmosphere Gallery by Shell, and Wonderlab project by Equinor. The campaign group Culture Unstained recently revealed how the director of the Science Museum, Sir Ian Blackford, invited BP to hold workshops with museum staff. This offered the company the chance to defend its business activities and sponsorship of the museum. Slides from the planned workshops reveal that BP plans to continue its production of oil and gas, expected to total $9 billion this year.

An investigation by the Guardian found that Shell used their sponsorship of the Atmosphere gallery to raise concerns with the Museum about how one element of the gallery appeared to “create an opportunity for NGOs to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell’s operations.” This referred to a part of the exhibition featuring an interactive exhibition examining waste in the context of climate change.

Extinction Rebellion used the letter to question the impact of such influence in their letter, writing that “any honest conversation about the climate and ecological crisis would necessarily involve a frank discussion of the harm being done by extractivism, and in particular, the growing impacts on frontline and indigenous communities. Will such a discussion be possible in an institution that has so openly aligned itself with the interests of the oil industry?”

Similar criticisms have been put forward by Cambridge Zero Carbon society, a group formed by students to pressure the University and colleges to divest from fossil fuels. They recently told Varsity: “engaging with fossil fuel companies limits the work [the Science Museum] can do. When private fossil fuel companies have a stake in places of culture and education, we cannot hope to meaningfully educate people on the realities of the climate crisis”.


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Both Zero Carbon and Extinction Rebellion have extended their criticism of the ties between educational institutions and the fossil fuel industry to the University itself. Despite committing to full divestment by 2030 last October and promoting initiatives such as Cambridge Zero, Extinction Rebellion argued in their letter that the University still maintains financial, social and academic ties with fossil fuel companies.

Last year, the activist group disrupted a careers event held at the university which hosted oil and gas companies. XR Youth Cambridge have also targeted the University. In April last year, the group marked the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill, in which almost 5 million barrels of oil leaked in the Gulf of Mexico, by spray painting the University’ BP Institute.

The letter asserts Dr Shuckburgh’s role in showing that existing ties between extractive industries and the University and Science Museum is damaging. They write, “As a Cambridge academic with extensive experience in the field, and as the director of Cambridge Zero, [Dr Shuckburgh] hold[s] significant social and intellectual capital” and calls for her to “consider withdrawing from Science Museum events until they have committed to cutting all ties with fossil fuel companies.”

Cambridge Zero has been contacted for comment.