The Science Museum needs to catch up on the climate crisis

My three-year-old has developed a passion for wind turbines. Where better to show him one than London’s Science Museum, alongside all the other technologies that are helping to solve the climate crisis, I reasoned? I was wrong. And rather alarmed.

Who can predict what catches the imagination of small children? For my three-year-old, a lengthy trip up the M1 has ignited a passion for wind turbines. Otherwise endless grey miles were punctuated by cries of, “I want to see a windmill,” followed by squeals of excitement when the piercing blades became visible from the back of the car.  

I sought to capitalise on his new focus by taking him to the Science Museum. Where better to see a wind turbine if you live in a built-up city? And what a great age to start caring for the environment: I’ve heard plenty of parents say they have been nagged into better recycling habits by their conscientious children.

So, I thought, surely there would be a wind turbine on display at the Science Museum – full size, hopefully, alongside solar panels and all the other impressive ways scientific innovation is helping us out of the climate crisis.  After all, the UN says we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, so the clock is ticking. And maybe, I thought, we’d see a model of a windmill.  

But no. The same steam engines and beam engines greet visitors that have done so for years, still churning out the narrative that scientific progress has saved us from hard manual labour and slow productivity. This is course true, and we live in their debt every day. But there was no word of the problems caused by those engines’ unruly heirs. When I asked where I could find a wind turbine or a windmill, one member of staff asked around and eventually recommended I take my son to London’s last working windmill, in Brixton.

Only one part of the museum really focused on climate change: at one end of one floor, is a modest temporary exhibition called Our Future Planet that looks at technologies being developed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and includes such quirky exhibits as “air vodka”. The museum’s Kids’ Handbook contained two pages on green energy, and photos of what were absent from the displays – a wind turbine, a solar panel and a hydroelectric dam.

Oddly, the handbook also devoted two pages to the jet engine and two to various single-use plastics, without any mention of the colossal environmental damage they are known to cause.

Photo: Blue Planet 2/BBC

Had the authors not watched those heart-breaking 2017 documentaries Blue Planet 2, in which Sir David Attenborough revealed the extent of marine plastic pollution? Had they not read the many news stories linking popularised air travel to dangerous levels of global heating? A government survey last autumn found that three-quarters of adults in Britain were worried about the impact of climate change.

Curious, I read around. I found that the sponsors of the museum, much of which is free to enter, include oil companies BP and Shell, and the coal conglomerate Adani. According to the Guardian, its contract with Shell included a clause committing the museum not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of the oil company. And last autumn a member of the museum’s advisory board resigned over the museum’s “ongoing policy of accepting sponsorship from oil and gas companies”.

At the time, the head of the Science Museum Group, Ian Blatchford, said: “We respect his decision to step down from his advisory role and he will remain a critical friend, his view much valued in our assessments.”

More positively, I found the website to contain more of the messaging I would have expected from scientific expert, including a thorough treatment of the problem of plastic pollution, and videos of talks about climate change from last year.

Yet it still felt too little, too piecemeal. The climate disaster is the biggest science story, the biggest story, in a century – especially if it as allowed to burgeon into the catastrophic proportions we are told inaction and denial will lead to. What is going on?

The museum told me a new climate change gallery focusing on “energy transition” is planned for next year, and a temporary exhibition in the autumn celebrating technicians “includes a to-scale wind turbine tower” and was designed with input from local teenagers. It added that the Kids’ Handbook had been published in 2013 whereas the online article on plastics appeared in 2019, and that films, talks and blogs on the website demonstrate the museum’s commitment “to engaging people in this vital issue”. It added that the contract clause “appears in most sponsorship agreements the museum … drafts”, adding: “In all of our work we maintain editorial control.”

So, mystery solved: if you want to learn about climate change through the Science Museum this summer, you’ll have to wait a few more months or stay at home and switch on your computer. By the time the new gallery opens, one-eighth of the time left to reach the climate target will have passed. I hope the new gallery will report the ignored warnings honestly and outline the reimaginings and breakthroughs inspiringly, even if it is decades too late to be ahead of the curve of public opinion. If not, they risk losing credibility in the eyes of the generation whose lives will be most affected by the climate crisis. As for my son and me, we’re off to Brixton.

Photo: Wind turbines at Whitelee Windfarm outside Glasgow. Credit: Bjmullan via Wikimedia