The Canada Science and Technology Museum faced pressure from a corporate sponsor to change its portrayal of the oilsands in a new energy exhibit, the museum’s former vice-president confirms.
Randall Brooks said both Imperial Oil and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers felt the exhibit was too critical of the oilsands. Brooks was still vice-president at the time but retired last year.
“They certainly were pushing for a positive portrayal of the oilsands,” he said Tuesday.
The Imperial Oil Foundation gave $600,000 over six years for the show called “Energy: Power to Choose.”
Brooks said industry representatives made up a large part of an advisory committee of about 25 people overseeing the exhibit’s preparation. It reported directly to the museum’s CEO, Denise Amyot.
“One of the things that they wanted point out, obviously, was that Canada is an energy-rich country and we need to exploit it,” he said.
“They were as far as possible trying to downplay the negative side of energy exploitation.”
Meanwhile correspondence between the museum and industry reps, obtained by Radio-Canada in an access to information request, show the industry pushing for changes in the exhibit’s content.
A letter last May from Susan Swan, the president of the Imperial Oil Foundation, says: “I find the language not balanced overall. I have tried to point out the most significant issues I have seen, but the overall tone is of concern to me.”
Imperial Oil calls a section of text about oil dependence “pejorative and unbalanced” and insists: “This has to be removed and rewritten.”
The company also says it’s uncomfortable with links in the exhibit between wars and oil.
Another objection is that the exhibit shows changes in the landscape caused by oilsands mining. Since the land must be reclaimed later under Canadian law, the exhibit is “telling only half the story,” the company says.
The museum’s current vice-president, Yves St-Onge, said energy is a “very complex” subject and his staff did a solid job of balancing many competing messages.
“From all the comments we received, we took some and left others behind,” he said.
“We tried to create a balanced content ... Our team of curators feel very strongly about the content of what we put out.
“It’s not something that has been dictated by any of the sponsors.”
A museum studies professor in Toronto says the same issue crops up again and again, as museums try to find a balance between the need for private money and the donors’ wishes to influence an exhibit.
Government funding cuts cause a “corporatization of museums,” said Lynne Teather of the University of Toronto’s faculty of information.
“Anybody running a museum today knows they have to deal with what we call stakeholders,” she said. As well, there’s the view of inside experts — the curators — and the museum’s own corporate mission. And the board of trustees may add its own influence toward a particular point of view.
Tensions can spring up over the interpretation of history, culture, or anything involving industry, she said.
“We would advise (the organizers) to be talking about that up front. Somehow those negotiations and balancing points get worked through toward an end point. We certainly teach students to be aware of these things.” She says there’s less private sponsorship money available than governments believe. And corporate donors may see their money as a marketing tool, not a simple donation.
we don't care about facts, tarsands edition
Why you always have to ask, who is sponsoring this exhibit/ad/study/media. And why tax dollars should support the arts, humanities and sciences: because if we don't, they will. (Emphasis added.)