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Public Trust

Alistair Brown, Public Trust , Museums Association (UK), 2 June 2015

How close is too close when it comes to sponsorship?

Public trust. It’s hard won and easily lost. That’s why this week’s headlines about the Science Museum’s close relationship with Shell should have us worried.

The story – in which emails between the Science Museum and Shell were released under a Freedom of Information request – is far from the first to concern sponsorship deals between museums and major energy companies. But this one feels a bit different.

It seems to me that while many might not object to oil money funding oil paintings, the museum-going public will wonder whether it is acceptable for a company like Shell to have such a direct link to the funding of a gallery on climate change.

The obvious concerns about the apparent conflict of interest seem to be borne out by the emails themselves, which tend towards a tone of friendly cooperation between museum and oil company.

They show how the Science Museum discussed changes to the Atmosphere gallery space with Shell executives, and checked with Shell before declining a meeting with Greenpeace.

There might be an explanation for all this, and it may very well be that no rules have been broken. Ian Blatchford, the director of the Science Museum Group, blogged about the incident on Monday, stating that “not a single change to the curatorial programme resulted from these email exchanges”.

Nevertheless, this week’s headlines could be damaging for museums in general because they could undermine public trust in the sector.

And trust is one of the most important assets that museums have. The research that the MA conducted on public attitudes to museums in 2012 found that “museums are in a rare position of being trusted to provide accurate and reliable information in a national conversation increasingly dominated by bias and vested interest.”

Trust is that rare quality – already thrown away to varying degrees by banks, governments and, indeed, energy companies – that museums should conserve at all costs. Why? Because the public should know – before they even set foot in a museum – that they can expect it to be a fair arbiter of fact and narrative.

To maintain that trust, we need to be willing to see things as others may see them – and always ask whether our actions would stand up when subjected to public scrutiny. In essence, we need to behave ethically – and we need a Code of Ethics that supports us to do so. I hope that this year’s review of the MA Code of Ethics will put acting ethically at the top of the sector’s agenda.