The Natural History Museum has been denounced for signing a contract with a gagging clause that prevented it from criticising a Danish oil company that sponsored its wildlife photography competition.
The clause was put into a contract with Dong Energy in 2016 when the company was heavily invested in oil and gas. Dong changed its name to Ørsted in 2017 when it divested of fossil fuels to focus on renewables.
By signing the contract, which was obtained by the investigative journalism organisation Point Source and shared with the Observer, the Natural History Museum agreed to refrain from making “any statement” that would “damage the reputation” of the company.
The company has sponsored the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition since 2016, and its current agreement runs until September 2023.
One wall text at the 2016 exhibition stated: “Drilling for oil is not generally considered beneficial for wildlife, yet oil rigs 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 the British photographer Alex Mustard and showing a bird hunting fish beneath an offshore oil platform. The exhibition did not provide any context about the oil industry’s negative environmental impact on marine ecosystems.
In 2016 Dong operated an oil and gas business in the North Sea worth more than $1bn (£830m).
Under the current contract, the Natural History Museum is not permitted to “make any statement or issue any publicity which may reasonably be foreseen as discrediting or damaging the reputation” of the company.
The use of the gagging clause has led to accusations of greenwashing by environmental groups and raised concerns about how large corporations can use sponsorship money to influence public discourse about environmental issues.
The campaign group Fossil Free London is calling for all British museums and art institutions to stop signing contracts with large corporations that contain this kind of gagging clause. Robin Wells, a spokesperson, said: “It is totally unacceptable that, when the public walk through the doors of British museums, the information they consume is being controlled by large corporations.”
In a statement, the Natural History Museum said it retains editorial control over all its exhibitions and denied the suggestion that sponsors have any influence over its content. “Clauses such as this are standard for corporate partnerships but, as they can be open to misinterpretation with regards to the absolute editorial control we retain, we no longer include them in new agreements.”
A spokesperson for Ørsted said: “We would not seek to influence the Natural History Museum’s views or limit its ability to provide its usual high standard of independent, critical, fact-based commentary on any aspect of the energy industry sector, should it choose to do so.”
• This article was amended on 8 January 2023. A previous version inadvertently omitted details of Ørsted’s divestment from fossil fuels in 2017, and to state that the image “Rig Diver” was exhibited in 2016; references to a “gagging order” in the text and headline were changed to “gagging clause”; and part of a statement from the Natural History Museum, clarifying that such clauses were no longer used in new contracts, was restored having been omitted owing to a production error.