Protests at London Science Museum Wonderlab opening

Protesters slam Science Museum's oil sponsorship of new children's gallery, Wonderlab, and the gallery's ‘elitist’ admission charges

Feature by The Skinny | 12 Oct 2016

Today, a new gallery aimed at children at the Science Museum in London opens to protests at its choice of oil company Statoil as its sponsor.

The opening of the Statoil-branded Wonderlab children's gallery coincides with news that the Norwegian oil giants are to begin a major new exploration campaign in the Arctic, drilling for oil which scientists say must stay in the ground for the health of the region’s fragile ecosystem.

At last night’s VIP opening, attended by the likes of George Osborne, Bill Bailey and Lauren Laverne, angry protesters turned up to unfurl a white carpet, which they say both symbolised the Arctic and satirised the notion of a red carpet VIP event. They then proceeded to pour a black, oil-like substance over it, suggesting the damage Statoil’s Arctic drilling could cause.

“Statoil might like to talk to you about their wind projects, but don’t let that obscure their fossil fuel expansion plans,” said Tonje Justen Sæther of Norwegian environmental action group Nature and Youth. “The ice is melting. Instead of taking that as a sign to stop, oil companies seem to want to seize the opportunity to drill even more.

"The science is very clear. We need to stop extracting fossil fuels, and as Professor Paul Ekins recently argued, if any country in the world needn’t produce its fossil fuel resources, it’s Norway. It’s terrifying to see Statoil plan to drill in the Arctic, and deeply saddening that an institution such as the London Science Museum seems happy to support them.” A host of politicians, activists and science professionals signed an open letter published in the Guardian calling for the museums to drop the Statoil sponsorship – read the letter and list of signatories here.

Campaigners weren’t just expressing environmental concerns, with the new gallery's pricetag for users accused of exacerbating class divides that already exist in terms of engagement with science. “Charging for the museum’s most popular children’s gallery sends a clear message that science is for some families, but not for all,” said Dr Emily Dawson, UCL science communication lecturer back in August.

“We should be opening up access to science and engineering, not closing it down,” adds Dr Alice Bell, a former Science Museum employee. “It’s high time the scientific community faced up to issues of class and how elitist it’s becoming, and take a stand against pressure to charge for access to places like Wonderlab... (the) Science Museum used to be a world leader in science communication for children, now it’s rapidly becoming a laughing stock.”

This isn’t the first time an oil company has used sponsorship of science and the arts as a way of cleaning up its image or exacting influence. In May last year, internal documents uncovered by Art Not Oil showed that Shell attempted to change the presentation of a climate change programme it was sponsoring at the Science Museum.

Earlier this month, BP’s new sponsorship deal with the British Museum was called into question after Freedom of Information disclosures exposed an 'ethical black hole' at the heart of the cultural institution, with questions raised over the decision-making process which led to BP’s sponsorship being extended. 

The museum’s staff had been informed that “any ethical questions which arise in the context of the museum’s activities or sponsorships are discussed and decided by the Board of Trustees." The trustees, however, only discovered that BP’s sponsorship deal was being renewed just before the announcement was made by director Hartwig Fisher, who extended the contract by five years. The British Museum refuted the allegations, claiming "whether or not the sponsorship deal (required trustee approval) 'depends on the definition of ethical questions'."

Theatrical protest group BP or not BP? have been a particular thorn in the oil company's side, their most recent stunt being a ‘Splashmob’ back in September, which included smuggling 200 performers – including mermaids and pirates – and a giant kraken into the British Museum. A similar campaign led in part to the Tate cutting their ties with BP in 2017; BP also currently sponsor the National Portrait Gallery and Royal Opera House.