Signifying interest

sponsors sign at the science museum

There’s a large plaque at the front of the Science Museum thanking their sponsors. Most museums have them. It’s as normal as a gift shop or a cafe. I took a photograph it about 18 months ago because I wanted to invite people to see such signs not just as a vote of thanks but as a sort of declaration of conflict of interest. That bit of the museum is currently closed for refurbishment so you can’t see the plaque right now. I hope they’re giving it a bit of a polish; visitors should be encouraged to notice it when when we arrive.

As well as this sign at the entrance, many of the individual galleries also have signs about their specific sponsors too. Visiting the museum a couple of weekends ago, I realised their energy futures gallery didn’t have a sign saying it was sponsored by BP. It did have a sort of list of credits (photo below if you’re interested - some good names on there), but there was no reference to BP.

I thought I was going crazy. I started to wonder if BP had really sponsored it after all. Was I just making it up? I double checked again on Tuesday. Still no sign, or if it’s there it’s hiding in very small print. The museum’s website isn’t very helpful. They tell you about why you might want to become a sponsor and what the current opportunities are, but not who currently sponsors them. I googled it and found a museum press release about the gallery winning a design award which mentions sponsors as it’s first four notes to editors. I also found a BP publication (pdf) which stated the gallery was partfunded with a £1.65 million investment from BP spread over five years. That’s good to know, especially considering the museum hasn’t been exactly forthcoming about this.

In fact, that whole BP piece makes for interesting reading in terms of understanding the relationship between the two institutions and history of that gallery:

The Science Museum and BP were talking about a possible partnership several years before a commitment was made. Gradually the discussion moved to a shared concern over the public lack of awareness of energy-related issues, and how to best teach them [...] For the Science Museum, having a sponsor like BP that is also a world leader in their subject was an exciting experience. “We always ask our sponsors for help but we are not always able to mine them for information”

I’m not sure if the reference to “mining” was a deliberate joke or not, though I did spend way too much of my lunchbreak yesterday failing to work out an adaption of the pun to specifically reference surface mining and a friend mused whether we can “frack” someone for information too these days? More seriously, the document also boasts that at £1.65 million, it was the largest corporate sponsorship the museum had ever received. I wonder if they’ve had more from anyone since? Nintendo had a £1million deal in 2006. Shell say they sponsor, but not how much (this 3min Science Museum video is also worth a watch).

Maybe there’s a good reason for the absence of a “sponsored by BP” sign. Maybe it’s just temporary; off being refurbished. Or maybe it’s because BP’s five year investment would have ended in 2009. If the latter, I can see the logic but they really did have such an early input, “able to mine them for information”, I personally think it should be declared. It doesn’t seem like it was just advertising space they were paying for.

Compare the Science Museum, with it’s energy and climate science content supported by BP and Shell, with the mass exodus from Scienceblogs a couple of years back after the site took sponsorship from Pepsi for a nutrition blog. Or the notes about travel costs under these Guardian pieces on West African fishing and carbon capture in Norway. Maybe it’s unfair to compare museums to science writers. There are differences. Still, science museums are a bit more like news media than art galleries, telling stories and reporting topical issues and new research. Indeed, I noticed a specific reference to the explicitly news-based Antenna Gallery in their list of corporate sponsorship opportunities. I’m inclined to say if science museum staff want to play journalist, they’re going to have to take on the ethical code of one. Maybe you disagree though.

Energy Gallery credits

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  1. Pedants' Corner
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mean to be an arse, but the first paragraph contains what might be a Freudian slip!

    “That bit of the museum is currently closed for refurbishment so you can’t see the plague right now.”

    You may want to edit that word, then delete this comment!

    • Alice
      Posted July 20, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      Done. Thanks.

  2. Ant
    Posted July 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink


    its common practice to have acknowledgement rights for only a few years, for galleries on show to the public. After that logos are taken down, its part of the agreement and stops the museum being covered in logos.

    nothing more to it than that
    best wishes

    • Alice
      Posted July 20, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      That is what I assumed, honestly (which I hope was clear from the post) and I really don’t want to encouredge any conspiracy theory here. Thanks for clarifying.

      But my point is that as a declaration of conflict of interest – hence ref to Gdn pieces – which especially as BP are keen to showcase their “upstream engamement” on topic, I think should remain. It may be standard, it shouldnt be (and I notice, the steel industry sign is still in materials, or was their contract for a longer period…? Any clue how much that was for by the way?).

  3. Posted July 20, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Disclosure: I play journalist at Antenna (well, not much).

    Antenna has an explicitly ‘news’ section, which isn’t ever sponsored, but also demands very little journalistic input, as it recycles content from major science news outlets with whom the Museum has agreements.

    Antenna’s ‘Insight Objects’ section occasionally get external funding – typically used to cover costs of object handling/install/etc and perhaps an associated event, and oh-so-never into the hands of the person writing the content – and it’s credited clearly on-gallery if so. Whether or not the object is funded, the team publish one main interview plus four independent viewpoints on the story. The journalistic effort/research involved is at least equivalent to, if not comfortably more than, a full feature article, albeit delivered in a different style.

    So perhaps ‘playing’ journalists isn’t an appropriate turn of phrase, and it’s better to accept Museums as a different beast – because their outputs pretty much encompass every medium possible, and telling stories through objects in a real space brings a raft of costs not associated with traditional journalism, which are not easily met with allocated public funding.

    Let’s be honest – while journalists may not receive direct funding, news media regularly draws on and recycles content delivered to them from privately-funded press releases (as a report on the BBC’s coverage with yours truly as an author showed), and I’d happily argue over a pint that the time saved by that is morally equivalent to taking a sponsorship to cover the cost of an item install, at least as far as the need to credit is concerned (in some cases, sponsorship precedes story, sometimes, sponsorship is initiated by the content developer when they’ve already found the story – therein lies possible ethical ambiguity).

    Now that’s not a situation, either in news (especially in news) or in the Science Museum, I am completely comfortable with. But I’m unconvinced that journalism is really something museums do, and I’m also unconvinced journalists (broad brush) tell stories free from corporate interest or investment.

    On the topic of generally crediting funding, yes, I agree that it should be displayed on gallery and be clear, or at least, accessible in a central location online too.

    Oh, and: the Science Museum is a fascinating case, and probably an easy target (for corporate funding and for critics). It’s a Science and Technology museum, whose content specifically avoids natural history. That means its content overlaps much more explicitly with industry, and in fact, it would be failing in its mission if it didn’t include considerable amounts of commercially derived content. The point at which a product becomes a historical object or at least an object worth displaying in a technology museum is rather grey. Perhaps a discussion for another day, though.

    • Alice
      Posted July 20, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

      Firstly, thanks for clarifying the Antenna issue. That’s useful. I wish that sort of info was made clear on the sponsorship section of the website, but it’s good to know. I’m still not convinced by it as a space, but that’s maybe a different issue.

      (trust is earned, not assumed, afterall)

      I think you are totally right to pick me up on the point that journalism isn’t some clean state museums should be asked to aspire to. Though on object handling costs… mmm, yes, but I’m not sure that (a) that shouldn’t be handled by public funds anyway (b) good journ doesn’t also have costs, (c) churnalism is the way to address this or if the BBC Trust review is the best example and (d) you can’t be better than crap journos. But I take the general point.

      I can’t speak for the rest of the people associated with this site, but personally, I think sponsorship deals are part of sci com. I also think that we should take expertise from industry too because, as you say, they are museums of industry (I actually *like* that the sci museum wants to “mine” BP for expertise) but I want these deals to be entered into cleverly, transparently and without compromising the ability for museums to critique companies they might want to take money from.

      Including commercially derived content is v different from being co-opted by commercial PR. If you can’t tell the difference between the two (and realise that you need to signal that clearly to visitors) you’re just plain naive.

      • Posted July 21, 2012 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Yup. I’m not saying the state of affairs is one I think is ideal, either on the museum side or the journalism side, which is why I bothered to comment. And, if the people doing research and content development in museums shouldn’t aspire to journalism, I’m not sure what they should aspire to, or where they should look for broader ethical guidance – that’s a whole new tangent.

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