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By Ian Blatchford on

Engaging the public while dealing calmly with XR protesters

There is no bigger challenge facing humanity than climate change. Over the summer, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the Science Museum for fun, inspiration and discovery, with many exploring Our Future Planet.

This fabulous exhibition highlights the nature-based and technological solutions for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, a small but significant part of what we must do globally alongside tackling our reliance on fossil fuels to reduce the impacts of dangerous climate change.

Our Future Planet exhibition at the Science Museum.

Thousands more people have watched the Science Museum Group’s series of online Climate Talks, thoughtful discussions involving renowned experts from around the world on the science of climate change and steps to mitigate it, in the run up to the most important international climate summit this year, the COP26.

Our museums take our responsibility to engage the public around the science of climate change seriously, alongside our commitment to reduce the organisation’s impact on the planet on our journey to net zero by 2033.

As a cultural institution, we also have a responsibility to facilitate peaceful protest during opening hours, while safeguarding the right of visitors, staff and local residents to feel welcome and safe in and around our buildings.

Yesterday (29 August) a group of Extinction Rebellion activists came to the museum to voice their dissent. Over recent years our team has calmly facilitated protests outside and within the museum, allowing people to have their say – often over the course of many hours.

The demands on my colleagues on these occasions are considerable, as we have to make sure the protests don’t get in the way of a treasured day out for our visitors who want to enjoy our free and inspiring spaces as well as looking after the health and safety of everyone in the building.

Yesterday, the museum team facilitated six hours of protests in the museum during opening hours. Regrettably some protesters refused to depart when the museum closed and ignored repeated requests to leave throughout the evening, with some attaching themselves to railings with chains or gluing their hands together.

Following discussions with the police, and after receiving assurances from the protesters that they would leave peacefully at 7am, a decision was made to take no further action during the night. I would like to publicly thank the museum’s team for handling this disruptive situation with great professionalism.

The reason the Science Museum was among many sites across London to be disrupted by Extinction Rebellion over the past week is that the museum has long-standing relationships with companies such as Shell, BP and Equinor, who provide money for us to fulfil our mission through sponsorship.

I’ve written at length about why the Executive team and the Board of Trustees disagree with activists’ calls for a blanket approach of severing ties with energy companies, but here’s a quick summary of our view:

  • The major energy companies have the capital, geography, people and logistics to be major players in finding solutions to the urgent global challenge of climate change
  • We believe the right approach is to engage, debate and challenge companies, governments and individuals to do more to make the global economy less carbon intensive
  • Through research and technological innovation in areas such as carbon capture, fuel efficiency and alternative energy such as wind, solar and tidal, energy companies have a major role to play, and we must continue to challenge them to show more leadership to deliver on this potential.
  • We achieve public good with the sponsorship we receive from our partners
  • In all such partnerships, the Science Museum Group retains editorial control.

The final point about editorial control is central to the work of our curatorial teams. Some activists have made unsubstantiated claims questioning the editorial independence of our exhibitions, based on a standard, reciprocal commercial clause that appears in sponsorship contracts the museum drafts.

We entirely reject the false allegation that curators of Our Future Planet were in any way inhibited in carrying out their vital role in an expert, independent and thorough manner. And we invite everyone to come and see this excellent exhibition.