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Corporate Control Over Museums

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I visited the Smithsonian U.S. history museum last week and was amazed at how corporate-controlled it has now become. I am working on a larger article on this topic that I’m hoping gets published somewhere with a larger audience, but in general, with major museums lacking the government funding they once had, the turn to corporate donors severely affects the stories they tell and undermines challenging visitors in any way. As the rest of the English-speaking world seems determined to follow the United States into a world of corporate-dominated right-wing government, it’s not too surprising to see corporate influence in those nations’ museums as well.

If you’d like to see how oil giant Royal Dutch Shell (one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world’s history) uses its corporate philanthropy to subtly change the core direction of potentially adversarial content at a renowned science museum educating millions, here’s your chance.

How Shell came to sponsor the London Science Museum’s “Atmosphere” program that, according to its director, emphasizes as much about what we don’t know about climate science as what we do know, is a story pulled straight from the well-established corporate public relations playbook.

When confronted with science, evidence and facts that aren’t especially helpful to your company’s bottom line – the playbook says to change the focus, or sow doubt about the certainty of the science. It worked for years for the tobacco industry. Big companies, like Shell, have clearly learned from its successes (and failures).

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Science Museum and Shell officials talked about the need to agree on the “big changes” to the exhibit’s focus until it was finalized. “I’ve spoken to the (science) team and they will have a think about David’s comment,” a museum official wrote to Shell in one such exchange. “If there is a possibility of big changes, would you be in a position to indicate them now?” a museum official wrote to Shell in another instance.

In response to media coverage of its own internal documents on the Shell sponsorship, the museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, wrote in a blog post Monday that the public should be satisfied that it retained final editorial control over the exhibit. Shell made suggestions, yes, but museum officials made the final decisions.

But Blatchford’s response actually captures perfectly what Shell hoped it would achieve by paying for the exhibit. It talks about the science of climate change and what we know. But it also focuses on what we don’t know.

“Shell was a major funder of Atmosphere, our climate science gallery which provides our visitors with accurate, up-to-date information on what is known, what is uncertain, and what is not known about this important subject,” Blatchford wrote. “The gallery has been hugely popular since it opened four years ago and has now been visited by more than 3 million people.”

Naturally, if you are Shell, you are going to fund an exhibit that is beautiful and full of technology and over which you have editorial control that makes sure that visitors come away thinking there is so much we don’t know about climate change so why attack the oil companies. One can question how much influence museum exhibits have on shaping visitors beliefs, but for many visitors who do not follow the politics of climate change, this is one of the most intensive bits of exposure to the issue they will ever see. So of course Shell is going to target this exhibit to get its side of the story told.

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