Experts back formal call for British Museum Board to reject new BP deal

  • Submission, signed by climate and museum experts and representatives of museum staff, shines spotlight on clash between museum policies and a potential future BP deal
  • Museum under mounting pressure after National Portrait Gallery and Scottish Ballet cut ties to oil firm in February
  • British Museum will face mass protest against BP sponsorship this weekend as decision over whether to renew current contract looms

The British Museum is facing fresh pressure over its BP sponsorship deal after the Board of Trustees received a formal submission setting out how pushing ahead with a renewed partnership with the oil giant could place them in breach of the Museum’s own policies and conflict with standards governing the culture sector. The submission, which was put together by the research and campaigns organisation Culture Unstained, has been backed by figures from the fields of climate science, archaeology, culture sector workers and the youth climate strike movement, and sets out ‘how the potential harm of signing a new sponsorship agreement with BP demonstrably outweighs the benefits and would be inconsistent with the museum’s commitments on sustainability’. It comes just weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued what some have called its ‘bleakest warning yet’ on the urgent need to act to prevent climate breakdown. 

In response to an FOI request, Culture Unstained recently discovered that the museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, has been preparing the ground to renew the controversial partnership and has been holding meetings with the oil giant to discuss ‘options for BP’s support post-Spring 2023’ since September 2021. A decision on whether to continue the Museum’s 25-year relationship with BP, which currently sponsors its blockbuster exhibitions, is expected to be made soon. 

The submission argues that trustees would be fulfilling their legal duties by exercising informed and ethical judgement in rejecting sponsorship from BP, and: 

  • points out that the museum has previously admitted that it has no due diligence report or record on BP, which is a clear breach of several sector-wide codes. Proceeding with a decision on sponsorship from BP without undertaking adequate due diligence checks could leave the museum open to regulatory intervention. 
  • argues that Chair George Osborne and Trustee Philipp Hildebrand should recuse themselves from discussions on any future sponsorship because of their business connections to BP, which create clear conflicts of interest. 
  • highlights that most comparable UK cultural institutions have now ended their relationships with fossil fuel sponsors and the COP26 summit explicitly rejected sponsorship from BP as its commitments do not align with global climate goals. 
  • Sets out how any future partnership with BP would represent an endorsement of the company’s business plans which involve significant investment in new oil and gas extraction and have been judged by multiple independent analysts to be inconsistent with the Paris Agreement targets. This, in addition to BP’s close ties to the Russian State over the last 30 years and the bumper profits it has made from the current energy crisis, represent a significant ongoing risk to the museum’s reputation. 

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

‘The museum’s Director seems intent on renewing the partnership with BP despite the company’s dire impact on the climate. So it’s vital that Trustees fulfil their legal duties, and make a decision based not on BP’s own dubious ‘net zero’ claims but on the overwhelming analysis that its investments in new oil and gas do not align with global climate goals. If the Board does approve a new deal with BP, it would signal that they chose to sidestep their own sustainability policy and dismiss the reputational risks of partnering with a leading fossil fuel producer as the climate crisis worsens.’

The submission is co-signed by eight individuals with directly relevant expertise on the issues it raises: 

  • Sir Robert Watson, Professor Emeritus at UEA, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
  • Professor Rodney Harrison, Professor of Heritage Studies at UCL
  • Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of the PCS Union, which represents many workers at the British Museum
  • Professor Paul Ekins OBE, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at UCL
  • Professor Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard and an expert in the history of climate disinformation and delay by oil companies such as BP
  • Hilary Jennings, Director of the Happy Museum Project
  • Willow Coningham from youth climate group UKSCN London which organised the youth climate strikes in Londo
  • Jonathon Porritt CBE, Founder Director of Forum for the Future who worked with BP for many years before ultimately realising it was impossible for them to adapt to the challenges of climate change voluntarily. 

Rodney Harrison, Professor of Heritage Studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, University College London, said:

‘The British Museum’s ongoing relationship with BP is clearly out of step with the rest of the cultural sector. In just the past few years, a significant number of museums, galleries and other cultural institutions, both in the UK and internationally, have publicly renounced their ties to fossil fuel sponsors. BP’s well publicised involvement in fossil fuel lobbying and ongoing oil and gas exploration, which threatens the world’s attempts to meet agreed global heating targets, as well as their links to the destruction of indigenous cultural sites on a number of continents, clearly makes them an inappropriate partner for a museum which purports to act for the preservation of the world’s cultures.

At a time when national and international codes of ethics for the sector urge museums to ensure they work in the public interest, uphold the highest level of institutional integrity and maintain transparent relationships with partner organisations, the British Museum’s conduct raises questions of international concern which the Trustees must address.’  

In 2016, the Trustees were not given a say on the decision to renew the BP contract. It’s vital that this time, trustees – which include classicist Mary Beard, artist Grayson Perry, broadcaster Muriel Gray, LSE Director Baroness Minouche Shafik, archaeologist Chris Gosden and Professor of Economics Professor Abhijit V Banerjee – give the decision proper scrutiny. 

Last month, the British Museum announced that it had reached an agreement with the Raymond & Beverly Sackler Foundation to remove the Sackler name from all the galleries, rooms and endowments they had supported, finally following in the footsteps of other major museums that have responded to the controversy around the family’s involvement in Purdue Pharma and the profits they made from misleadingly marketing the prescription opioid Oxycontin. The move marked a significant new precedent, with the museum ordinarily resistant to taking a clear stance on ethical funding.

The British Museum has become increasingly isolated in its stance on fossil fuel funding. In February, the National Portrait Gallery announced the end of the company’s 30-year sponsorship of the ‘BP Portrait Award’ and it was also confirmed that the Scottish Ballet had ended its corporate partnership with the oil giant. In 2016, Tate ended its 26-year sponsorship deal with BP and, in 2019, the Royal Shakespeare Company ended its BP sponsorship deal halfway through a 5-year contract, saying that ‘young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC’.

The submission, which was sent to the Museum last week, comes as activist group BP or not BP? prepares for a mass action this coming Saturday 23rd April, the fourth anti-BP protest to hit the museum in a month. Hundreds of people are expected to descend on the museum to undertake creative actions calling for an end to the BP deal, in the biggest protest since the group occupied the museum for three days with a Trojan Horse, a 1500-strong crowd and an overnight art installation in February 2020, just before lockdown. 

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