Apr 12, 2010 at 10:31 PM
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Shell's Climate Change Sponsorship Causes Blogosphere Meltdown

Across the pond, Shell's sponsorship of an upcoming climate change exhibit at the Science Museum in London has caused quite a stir. At issue is whether the Museum has softened its stance on climate change due to pressure from the $6 million exhibit's primary sponsor, Shell UK.

Here's a recount of the events as we've gathered them. On March 22nd, The Science Museum announced the landmark Climate Change Gallery with principal support from Shell and Siemens. No big deal right? Then The Times reported that the exhibit's name would be changed from The Climate Change Gallery to Climate Science Gallery in order "to avoid being accused of presuming that emissions would change the temperature."

“The Science Museum will not state a position on whether or not climate change is real, driven by humans or threatening,” The Times quoted Museum director, Professor Chris Rapley.

Blogs erupted with skepticism. Here's a sample with about 50 comments.

The museum then released this statement clarifying their position on climate change and intentions with regards to the exhibit:

"Our intentions for the new climate science gallery have been misrepresented by some commentators. The role of the Science Museum is to provide an enjoyable, informative experience for the general public which is representative of the state of the science. Our aim is to increase interest and deepen understanding about climate science. Content will be led by the scientific evidence available and will therefore highlight the fact that the majority of the climate science community has concluded that current climate change is real, mainly human-induced and requires a response. The content and overall aim of the gallery is by no means influenced by the sponsors, of which there are several and whose financial support holds no editorial influence over the Science Museum's gallery.

Firewalls (or lack thereof), of course, have caused considerable outrage within other sectors such as banking and media so it should come as no surprise that this issue would cause considerable concern among sponsorship cynics and climate change activists.

In New Haven, Pepsi's recent sponsorship of obesity studies at the Yale School of Medicine was critiqued for potential conflicts of interest. In light of such cases, does perception (or the public's reaction) equate to reality? Afterall, such consumer cynicism surely isn't the intended result, but it influences sponsor perception nonetheless.

Science Communication Lecturer Alice Bell of Imperial College in London offered a fresh perspective on the Shell/Science Museum controversy. Here's part of her take:

"I was a gallery hand at the museum when the BP-branded Energy gallery opened. We were briefed to explain to visitors that the museum had maintained control throughout the exhibition design. As the gallery-hand briefing went, editorial control was part of the contract, the museum wouldn't have done it otherwise. Moreover, BP wouldn't have wanted to connect themselves with the museum if they were seen as easily bought. No one's brand would benefit from anything other than complete editorial control. For what it is worth, I believe this. However, I also saw the ways in which visitors would react when they found out about BP's involvement. You cannot deny the semiotics of the simple "sponsorship by" sign. Maybe the museum does maintain editorial control. But the visitor turning up on a rainy bank holiday doesn't know this. They shouldn't necessarily be expected to either. They see the logo, this quite reasonably sets off their bullshit detector, which in turn affects their experience of the gallery."

Climate change is a topic that will only grow in interest, inside and outside the walls of museums, and in other mediums, sponsored and otherwise. As big energy companies more aggressively market and facilitate the conversation around climate change content, it may be tough to downright impossible for some to take at face value their efforts. The central question: If you're perceived to be a part of the problem, should you be excluded from the process of finding a solution? If we want to see such efforts continue to be viable, perhaps we should settle for making partnerships the most transparent they can be. Amplifying the conversation and even providing for corporate perspective, so long as it in no way influences editorial.

Consumers are smart and they'll accept a "corporate agenda" as long as it's transparent. They are not naive enough to think that corporation don't have interests or that many properties can survive without their support. On the other hand, ignoring these interests all together, as if they never existed, only seems to heighten the skepticism around sponsorship. You know which side to err on right?

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