Will the British Museum finally break it off with BP?

Is the British Museum finally going to break it off with oil and gas giant BP?

With just over two months left to run on the British Museum’s current sponsorship deal with fossil fuel giant BP, Museum Chair George Osborne told Trustees last month: 

“our goal is to be a net zero carbon museum – no longer a destination for climate protest but instead an example of climate solution.”

Well, George, if that’s true, there’s no way the Museum can sign a new sponsorship deal with BP. Is this the end? We review the evidence. 

No news on a new contract.

There is only just over two months left to run on the British Museum’s current contract with BP, yet there has still been no announcement about any renewal. Last time round, the contract was announced 18 months in advance.

The current deal is due to end on 19 Feb 2023, when the current BP-sponsored exhibition, Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt, closes.

The detail: The existing contract was signed in May 2016, and then announced in July 2016, 18 months before it formally began on the 1st January 2018. A ‘variation’ to the sponsorship agreement was signed between BP and the British Museum due to the Covid-19 lockdown. The extension term specified said it would terminate “on the sooner of (i) the final date of the fifth BP Exhibition so designated under Clause 2.2 and (ii) 31 December 2023…” . Hieroglyphs is the fifth BP exhibition of the contract. 

Culture Unstained has obtained a copy of the contract and the extension available here.

Everyone else is dropping BP

In 2018 BP began a block five-year sponsorship deal with four major arts institutions: the British Museum; the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House.

Two of those sponsorship deals, those with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Portrait Gallery, have already been terminated. 

We don’t know yet what’s next for the Royal Opera House. Former BP boss John Browne is on the Board – but its ‘BP Big Screens’ haven’t returned since the Covid-19 lockdowns. 

The RSC announced its decision to “conclude our partnership with BP”  partway through the contract in 2019 – responding, it said, to the views of young people in particular. 

“Amidst the climate emergency, which we recognise, 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. We cannot ignore that message.

And in February 2022 the National Portrait Gallery announced it would not extend its contract with BP, meaning its 30 year relationship ends this month, December 2022.

They’re not the only ones. Scottish Ballet also cut their ties in February. The National Galleries Scotland, which hosted the BP Portrait Award every year in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, was ahead of the game, announcing in November 2019 that it would no longer host the award while it was associated with BP; the Tate dropped BP at the end of the last sponsorship round in 2016. 

The COP26 summit explicitly rejected sponsorship from BP as its commitments do not align with global climate goals. 

It’s time for the British Museum to get on the right side of history too. 

No new negotiations since 2021 

The Museum leadership was keen to woo BP in the summer of 2021, but negotiations appear to have tailed off – and the Museum insists no further ‘substantive discussions’ have taken place.

In June 2021, Museum Director Hartwig Fischer wrote to BP to say he was looking forward “to continuing discussions around our long-standing partnership.” In September 2021 a two hour meeting was held  at the Museum with BP, where the agenda included discussing “the different options for bp’s support post-spring 2023”. 

But apparently a key member of the BP team could not attend and therefore, the Museum claims, no ‘substantive’ discussions were held. A new meeting was rescheduled 14 October  – and then, apparently, also nothing… 

The Museum insists no further discussion or correspondence took place after October 2021.

No substantive discussions of this nature [on the possible renewal of the sponsorship] have taken place between the British Museum and BP since the date when you last requested this information”

Really? Well, Culture Unstained asked the Museum to clarify the meaning of ‘substantive discussions’ and was told in June 2022: 

“We are happy to confirm that any meetings or discussions regarding the future of the British Museum’s partnership with BP would always be initiated at senior level and that our response was intended to make it clear that no such discussions or meetings had taken place.”

No due diligence reporting into the reputational risks of a BP deal

Substantive discussions certainly should not have been taking place –  because the Museum had still not carried out any of the necessary background work that should be done prior to agreeing a new funding partnership.

In July 2022, the Museum confirmed that it had still not undertaken any due diligence reporting into BP, nor any formal assessment of the company – or even sought independent expertise on BP’s business and the risks it could pose to the Museum’s reputation – meaning this essential work has never taken place.   

These kinds of due diligence checks are required by codes of fundraising practice in the sector, for example the Charities Commission is clear that before forming any funding partnership, you must ‘Know Your Donor’. 

The previous decision to renew the BP sponsorship deal was taken without any kind of due diligence work, behind closed doors by the Director and Chair, and the Board of Trustees were then informed only after it had been signed. Since then, the Board of Trustees has 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.

If the Museum hasn’t undertaken these crucial due diligence checks, it should not be considering any form of partnership with BP. If it is, this raises serious questions about the Museum’s adherence to what should be standard practice in the sector.

“No longer a destination for climate protest”

At the  ‘Annual Trustees’ Dinner’, in November 2022 British Museum Chair George Osborne told those present that

“our goal is to be a net zero carbon museum – no longer a destination for climate protest but instead an example of climate solution.”

There is no way that this statement can be reconciled with signing a new BP sponsorship deal. Despite saying that it has ‘an ambition’ to go net zero, BP continues to invest significantly in fossil fuel exploration and extraction. This runs completely counter to the International Energy Agency’s guidance that we can have no investment in new oil, gas and coal if we are to achieve net zero, and the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

In Egypt, the focus of the current BP-sponsored exhibition, the company is involved in around 70% of its fossil gas production as well as undertaking new exploration

A ‘read-in’ of the work of writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah, at the opening of the BP-sponsored exhibition ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking Ancient Egypt, highlighted the plight of tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt, where BP’s business has been aided by political repression.

Refusal to confirm or deny.

Osborne’s speech focused on the Museum’s ‘Masterplan’, the so-called “Rosetta Project”, for which it is reportedly seeking to generate a massive £1 billion of new funding. It’s not clear where the Museum is hoping to find the money for this controversial project – which the Art Newspaper described as the ‘most expensive revamp in Museum history’. The Museum says it will announce details of the Masterplan in Spring 2023.

But, in response to a recent FOI request, the Museum refuses to even ‘confirm or deny’ whether it holds information related to  BP potentially paying money into this initiative. 

But let’s be clear: fossil fuel funding has no place in the Museum, whether it involves splashing BP’s logo on the wall or just the opportunity for the company to hire Museum galleries for its private events. . 

As Osborne outlined plans to restore the Museum’s iconic reading room he said, “this was not a silent library, it was quite the opposite: it was the place to be noisy about a better future.”

A better future must be a future without BP. Will the Museum now make a stand and side with the people not a major polluter?