Will the British Museum come clean about its Chair’s shady Advisory Group?

Last week, Channel 4 News broke the story of our latest investigation on the British Museum’s “Chairman’s Advisory Group” (CAG), an almost entirely unaccountable group of 30 global corporate leaders including heads of fossil fuel, arms and mining companies and investment banks – as well as the museum’s oil sponsor BP – that are personally invited by the Chairman to offer guidance behind closed doors. 

You can read our full investigation, as well as the emails and documents disclosed by the British Museum, here.

Since the investigation aired, the revelations have been raising fundamental questions about transparency and accountability at the museum, and who gets a say in the decisions it takes, particularly as the museum is about to decide whether to renew its controversial BP sponsorship deal in the coming months.

The CAG is shrouded in secrecy and few even know it exists: it’s not listed on the museum’s website, the group’s membership isn’t made public and the meetings aren’t even minuted. At a time when many are calling on the museum to be more open and accountable, the CAG ensures that several controversial businesses will have ready access to the British Museum’s Chairman and Director, while legitimate stakeholder groups, from cleaners and technicians to communities with ties to the museum’s collection, often struggle to get a seat at the table.

And the CAG is now headed up by the museum’s new Chair, the former Chancellor George Osborne, a man who once delivered a 15% budget cut to our national museums. Osborne claims he will bring his “experience, energy and passion” to the role although the backlash to his initial appointment, which had the Board’s unanimous backing, has been substantial.

It’s through a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that we’ve now uncovered troubling details about the role and influence of the CAG that Osborne now heads. It includes how:

  • The membership of the CAG is dominated by controversial corporations, from the museum’s notorious oil sponsor BP to fossil banks Citi and Bank of America, and from a multinational arms company to mining giant Glencore. While it did tell us who was on the CAG back in 2018, the museum now refuses to disclose who the members of the CAG are which allows them to engage with the Chair and Director anonymously and unaccountably;
In response to our FOI, the British Museum disclosed the backgrounds of members – but not their names or companies. (FOI response, 2021)
  • In 2020, members were invited to ‘brainstorm new ideas’ for “How the British Museum should engage with the new government?” and were sent a ‘Confidential Briefing’ document in advance, which has been heavily redacted by the museum in its response to our FOI;
  • There is an almost complete absence of transparency around the CAG, with the British Museum admitting it has “no formal role within the museum’s governance structure and as such, the meetings are not minuted”;
FOI response letter, British Museum (2021)
  • Members have discussed highly controversial issues such as “the repatriation debate” while the museum’s leadership repeatedly dodge the debate in public;
  • Several former and current bosses from museum sponsor BP have featured among the CAG’s members, cementing the company’s influence at the top of the museum’s hierarchy.

This is particularly concerning as, in the wake of the covid funding squeeze, the museum is due to decide whether to renew its BP sponsorship deal for another five years in the next few months, based on previous timelines.

In a statement, the British Museum told Channel 4 News:

“As a recognised national charity, we follow best practice and fully comply with charitable law. In considering any sponsorship, the Museum thinks carefully about the nature and quality of any offer before accepting.

These decisions are taken in line with the stringent and robust requirements of our Acceptance of Donations and Sponsorship Policy. Claims that the British Museum is inappropriately influenced by any donations or sponsorship are simply incorrect.”

However, our investigations have also revealed how the museum continues to have no formal due diligence report on the BP to objectively assess its suitability as a sponsor of the museum, despite the Director appearing to push ahead with renewing the partnership. This should be standard practice.

British Museum, FOI response (2021)

The museum also told Channel 4 News that:

“Claims that the British Museum is inappropriately influenced by any donations or sponsorship are simply incorrect.”

However, our findings suggest that the CAG creates the conditions for the British Museum to be inappropriately influenced, both by it existing sponsors as well as corporate representatives who have no clear formal relationship with the museum and without the public knowing who they are.

British Museum Chair George Osborne is also looking to raise £1bn towards the renovation of the museum. All this raises the question: will the museum’s most controversial sponsor, and any potential new funders, be decided upon in a transparent and ethical way or through personal ties, without proper scrutiny?

Read our full investigation and the documents received from our FOI requests here.