It is intended to be an ­exploration of humanity’s past and future efforts to decarbonise the way we live. Historical objects mixed with interactive displays will show how environmentally friendly energy systems are shaped by imagination and innovation.

But the new Science Museum gallery, Energy Revolution, the Adani Green Energy Gallery, has gone down badly – with environmentalists.

Last week they picketed the ­gallery’s private opening party and confronted guests with ­banners denouncing the London ­museum’s decision to accept sponsorship from the Indian energy group Adani, arranged through its renewables subsidiary, Adani Green Energy.

The company’s other ventures – which include major ­investments in Australian coal mines – mean its sponsorship is tainted, say ­protesters. “No museum or ­public institution should be helping such a toxic firm to boost its brand,” said Rhian Ashford, of the Fossil Free Science Museum coalition.

The claims are destined to set off another major controversy about museum sponsorship – and about the way industry is responding to the need to decarbonise our planet. Some back the protesters. Others side with the museum.

“India is a vast country and its electricity system still relies heavily on coal,” said Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. “It knows it needs to move away from fossil fuel burning and has set up one of the world’s most ambitious solar power programmes with Adani Green Energy, which is India’s largest renewables company, playing a key role.

Activists protest opposite the Science Museum in 2021 against sponsorship by fossil fuel corporations Photograph: SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

“However, you cannot switch from coal to solar overnight so it is ridiculous to campaign against the new gallery because fossil fuels are still being burned in India,” added Ward, an adviser involved in the gallery’s planning. “These green protesters are trying to discourage people from visiting a gallery which makes it clear climate change is the most important challenge humanity faces today. That is mad and counterproductive.”

But Chris Garrard, a member of the Fossil Free Science Museum ­coalition, insisted the protest was justified. “The work of the gallery’s curators is really important but it has been consistently undermined by museum leaders who have chosen sponsors like Adani despite the fact the company continues to expand its coal mining and burning.”

Garrard said the Science Museum had refused to listen to widespread protests from stakeholders. “That leaves no option for us but to call for a boycott of the gallery,” he added.

Extinction Rebellion activists outside the Science Museum calling for an end to their collaboration with Adani, in 2023. Photograph: Denise Laura Baker/Alamy

Ian Blatchford, the museum’s chief executive, said he and his ­colleagues recognised that “some campaigners have strong views about sponsorship and wish to see wholesale disengagement from entire ­sectors. Our trustees disagree with that view, however, and have clearly articulated our approach in ­urging companies, governments and individuals to do more to make the global economy less carbon intensive.”

Climate scientist Professor Myles Allen, of Oxford University, was more cautious. “In many ways, companies like Adani are doing much more than many western companies in moving away from fossil fuels and building up renewables, so it is a bit unfair to target them,” he said.

“The problem is that no one is required to reveal how they intend to stop the products they sell from causing global ­warming. Diversifying into renewables is beside the point if you are still selling fossil fuels – and promising to get rid of your fossil fuel assets by 2049 doesn’t work either. Until companies tell us how they are going to fix fossil fuels, and not just shuffle them around, we can’t tell which are on track for net zero. Perhaps this new gallery will make this nice and clear – which would be great.”

As to the gallery that has triggered this controversy, its aim is straightforward. It has been designed to demonstrate the technologies that will be required if humanity is to halt global warming and to stop its current, headlong slide into a crisis that threatens to trigger droughts, melt ice caps, flood coastal cities, set off mass migrations, and lead to major biodiversity losses.

“This is a new, permanent gallery,” said its curator, Oliver Carpenter. “In 10 years, its content will still have to be relevant. So putting ­renewable energy in a historical context has been crucial to our planning.”

A key example is provided by a display of an electric taxi built in 1897. It was manufactured by the Great Horseless Carriage Company and a fleet of more than 70 ­ferried passengers around London for ­several years. Known as Bumble Bee cabs because of their bright yellow and black paintwork, each was powered by a lead-acid battery that was recharged after use at the company’s own coal-powered power station.

Its designer, Walter Bersey, claimed his cabs had “no smell, no noise, no heat, no vibration, and no possible danger” but they were ­eventually taken out of service in 1899. Intriguingly it has taken more than 100 years for the electric taxi cab to make its comeback with Transport for London reporting last year that more than half of the capital’s 14,700 hackney carriages are now “zero emissions capable”.

“Things could have been very ­different if Henry Ford and the discovery of oil and gas fields in America had not happened together,” added Carpenter. “These are the sorts of variables we want to highlight in the gallery.”

Other developments on the road to a low carbon future include some of the machinery that formed the world’s first public electricity network, created by Thomas Edison, in London in 1882 as well as some of the remains of Zeta, a nuclear fusion experiment created in the late 1950s by British scientists. They thought, incorrectly, that it would bring cheap, abundant, low-carbon energy to the world in a few years.

“We have had to learn a lot of lessons about energy generation over the decades and, as the gallery makes clear, we will need to learn a lot more,” added Carpenter.

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