British Museum seeking new BP sponsorship despite opposition from archaeologists

  • Emails reveal that museum director actively pursuing renewal of controversial sponsorship deal with oil and gas giant BP 
  • Over 300 archaeologists sign letter to Board of Trustees calling on them to cut ties to BP as new BP-sponsored World of Stonehenge exhibition opens
  • Details of secretive ‘Chairman’s Advisory Group’ giving BP direct line to museum’s leadership revealed on Channel 4 News
  • News comes as BP faces criticism over its huge profits from high gas prices amidst calls for windfall tax and scrutiny of its stake in Russian state oil firm 

New emails released under Freedom of Information (FOI) rules and made public by Culture Unstained have revealed that the Director of the British Museum is pushing ahead with renewing the museum’s controversial sponsorship deal with the oil and gas giant BP despite huge opposition to the partnership. Documents show that Director Hartwig Fischer met with BP last year to discuss continuing the sponsorship relationship despite the museum misleadingly claiming that no decision was ‘likely to be relevant for some time’

This comes as Channel 4 News reports tonight on a new investigation by Culture Unstained into the museum’s secretive ‘Chairman’s Advisory Group’ which includes representatives of corporations, including BP, that are given a direct line to the museum’s leaders behind closed doors. The revelations come in the week that the British Museum has opened its latest BP-sponsored exhibition, The World of Stonehenge, and as over 300 archaeologists have written to the museum’s trustees calling on them not to renew the sponsorship deal. 

Chris Garrard, Co-Director of Culture Unstained, said: 

‘Renewing BP’s sponsorship would be a reckless move. It would give further legitimacy to an oil and gas company that has made a massive contribution to climate breakdown and is raking in huge profits from an energy price crisis that’s causing financial hardship for millions. Like the origins of Stonehenge, the museum’s dealings with BP are shrouded in mystery and the museum’s trustees must clear the fog. They have a legal duty to protect the museum’s reputation and must end the partnership with BP,  following in the footsteps of other major cultural institutions.’

The new emails and documents reveal that:

  • Director Hartwig Fischer spoke to BP in June 2021 and invited staff from the company to the museum to discuss the future of the partnership in the subsequent months, despite the museum claiming just two days later that ‘no decision as to a future potential renewal is currently under consideration, nor is it likely to be relevant for some time’.
  • Agendas show that Fischer and BP discussed ‘the different options for bp’s support post-Spring 2023’ after undertaking a tour of the museum highlighting the history of the partnership. Plans were later made for a ‘brainstorm’ on this subject with a team from BP. 
  • Fischer’s emails to BP demonstrate a clear lack of objectivity around the damaging reality of his sponsor’s business, saying ‘It was wonderful to see you at the BM yesterday and to have the opportunity to discuss the future – particularly as our two organisations move towards a greater focus on sustainability. I look forward to continuing the discussion.’
  • The British Museum admits that it ‘does not hold any form of due diligence report or record on BP’ but is clearly seeking sponsorship from the oil giant, flouting fundraising guidance from regulators.
  • There is an almost complete absence of transparency around the museum’s ‘Chairman’s Advisory Group’, whose membership is dominated by controversial corporations including its oil sponsor BP, as well as fossil banks Citi and Bank of America, mining giant Glencore and an unnamed multinational arms company.
  • In 2020, members of the Chairman’s Advisory Group were invited to ‘brainstorm new ideas’ for “How the British Museum should engage with the new government?” but all details have been heavily redacted by the museum and it refuses to disclose the group’s current membership.

For years, the British Museum has faced growing opposition to its BP sponsorship deal. Museum staff and leading cultural figures have spoken out, and creative protests and occupations of the museum have attracted thousands of participants; the largest protests in the museum’s 260-year history. In 2019, BP sponsorship even prompted the resignation of author Ahdaf Soueif from the Board of Trustees. 

On Monday, over 300 archaeologists and heritage professionals sent a letter to the museum’s Board and Director, saying that ‘Ending this sponsorship arrangement would, we believe, enhance the Museum’s public image, and in particular strengthen the Museum’s ability to inspire children and young people, who are highly conscious of the threats posed by the climate crisis.’ Signatories include: Prof. David Wengrow, co-author with David Graeber of the bestseller The Dawn of Everything, Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Neanderthals expert and author of the award-winning book Kindred and Prof. Tom Higham, radiocarbon dating expert and author of The World Before Us.

Another letter signatory, Dr Rebecca Flemming, Senior Lecturer in Ancient History, Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge, said:

‘That BP, like other fossil fuel companies, is committed to both planetary destruction and systematic misinformation, the undermining of knowledge, makes it doubly shocking that any museum would partner with it.’

Most leading cultural institutions have now ended their relationships with fossil fuel companies as part of recognising their climate responsibilities, including Tate, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre. The spotlight on the British Museum’s BP sponsorship deal comes as the oil giant faces public criticism over the huge profits it announced last week, generated in part from the rising energy prices that are forcing many UK households to have to choose between heating and eating. BP is also continuing to invest millions in new exploration for oil and gas despite the International Energy Agency making clear that there can be no new investments in oil and gas exploration if we are to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Last year BP, along with other major oil companies, was barred from sponsoring or having any formal role at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow as its business plans were judged not to be consistent with the Paris Climate targets.

The British Museum has faced huge opposition to its BP sponsorship deal with high-profile figures including actors Mark Ruffalo and Mark Rylance and author Margaret Atwood speaking out the last time it was renewed. The museum has faced regular large-scale protests and in 2020 was occupied for three days during its BP-sponsored Troy exhibition, with ‘actorvist’ group BP or not BP? sneaking a huge oily Trojan Horse into the museum’s courtyard, 1500 people taking part in talks and a mass creative protest across the museum’s galleries, including  a sculpture created overnight by arts activists in the museum’s Great Court without permission.

Meanwhile, the Science Museum continues to face intense opposition to its decision to sign a new sponsorship deal with the coal-producing conglomerate Adani, as well as its ongoing partnerships with oil and gas majors BP, Shell and Equinor. In just the last few months, scientists, museum contributors, Indigenous people and young people have condemned the museum’s decision to partner with Adani, a move that prompted Hannah Fry and Jo Foster to resign from the museum’s Board of Trustees last October, just weeks after former director of the Science Museum and leading climate scientist Chris Rapley resigned from its Advisory Board.

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