The Natural History Museum has been denounced for signing an oral order preventing it from criticizing a Danish oil company that sponsored its wildlife photography competition.
The clause was inserted into a contract with Dong Energy, now known as Orsted, for its sponsorship of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
One wall text at the exhibit said: “Drilling for oil is not generally considered beneficial to wildlife, but oil drilling can provide shelter and a rich food supply for many animals, including Brandt’s cormorants.”
The text was for an image titled “Rig Diver”, taken by British photographer Alex Mustard and showing a bird hunting fish below an offshore oil platform. The exhibit provided no context about the oil industry’s negative environmental impact on marine ecosystems.
By signing the contract, obtained by investigative journalism organization Point Source, the Natural History Museum agreed not to make “any statement” that would damage the reputation of the oil company.
The use of the oral clause has led to accusations of greenwashing by environmental groups. At the time the contract was signed with Dong Energy, the company operated an oil and gas business in the North Sea worth more than $1 billion. The company has sponsored the annual wildlife photography exhibition every year since 2016, and its current deal runs until July 2023.
The Natural History Museum is not permitted to “make any statement or issue any publicity which can reasonably be expected to discredit or damage the reputation” of the company.
The campaign group Fossil Free London is calling on all UK museums and art institutions to stop signing contracts with large corporations that contain this kind of verbal clause. Robin Wells, a spokesman, said: “It is totally unacceptable that, when the public walk through the doors of British museums, the information they consume is controlled by large corporations.”
In a statement, the Natural History Museum said it retains editorial control over all its exhibitions and denies the suggestion that sponsors have any influence over their content. “Clauses like this are standard for corporate partnerships, but they can be open to misinterpretation in relation to the absolute editorial control we retain.”
A spokesman for Orsted said: “We will not seek to influence the Natural History Museum’s views or limit its ability to deliver its usual high standard of independent, critical, fact-based commentary on any aspect of the energy industry sector, should it decide to do so.”