Pressure to confirm status of BP partnership grows as British Museum trustees meet

  • Damning new film released on the day of British Museum Trustees’ meeting exposes how BP has used its sponsorship deal to cement relationships with repressive rulers
  • Law firm Leigh Day have written to the Museum on behalf of campaigners with request to clarify the status of BP’s relationship with the Museum
  • Oil and gas firm’s 5-year sponsorship deal with the Museum formally ended on 19th February but Museum refusing to say if deal is over or new partnership signed

As the British Museum’s Board of Trustees meet today, they are facing growing pressure to confirm the status of the institution’s relationship with the oil and gas company BP, after the firm’s 5-year sponsorship of temporary exhibitions formally came to an end on 19th February.

Campaign organisation Culture Unstained have this morning launched a damning new film in a bid to bring about the end of the museum’s fossil fuel ties, which highlights how BP has used its decades-long relationship with the Museum to shore up relationships with repressive regimes in Russia, Mexico and Egypt in order to further its fossil fuel extraction.

Earlier this week, law Firm Leigh Day wrote to the Museum on behalf of Culture Unstained to formally request that it confirms the status of the BP partnership after it appeared to snub a request for clarification from the Guardian last month. 

The spoof film – which initially appears to be a promotional video created by the British Museum – highlights the benefits of corporate sponsorship for fossil fuel sponsors with an image problem, with a voiceover explaining how the British Museum ‘can’t clean up those [oil] spills, but we can help clean up your reputation’.

The film has been launched across social media platforms and shines a damning spotlight on how BP has met with ambassadors and policy-makers at exhibition openings and attempted to put a positive spin on its environmental and human rights record, with BP’s Vice President previously admitting that ‘naturally we are going to try to match a particular exhibition with somewhere we have an interest’

In particular, the film highlights: 

  • BP’s sponsorship of the Ashurbanipal exhibition in 2017 featuring archaeology from modern day Iraq. In its foreword to the exhibition catalogue, BP bragged that it had been ‘operating in the Middle East for 100 years, and it is by applying new technologies to historic resources that we operate so successfully in this part of the world today’. However, a recent BBC investigation revealed how its gas flaring in Iraq has created high levels of toxic pollution for nearby communities. 
  • BP’s sponsorship of a one-off festival on Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’ in 2015. BP paid additional sponsorship money for the event and it was later confirmed that, during the event, it had met with members of the Mexican government as part of a VIP reception ahead of successfully bidding for new drilling licences just months later.
  • BP’s sponsorship of the Museum’s ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition of artefacts from Egypt. Despite maintaining close ties with successive repressive rulers in Egypt and being responsible for around 60% of the country’s fossil gas production – much of it from the Nile Delta – at the entrance to the exhibition, BP cynically described itself ‘as fellow explorers of the Nile Delta’ saying that ‘we feel a strong affinity with the maritime archaeologists’.  

For more on the research behind the film, you can read a briefing here.

A spokesperson for Culture Unstained has said:

‘Our film highlights how BP has used its sponsorship of the British Museum to shore up relationships with repressive rulers and boost its fossil fuel extraction. And for too long, the museum has been an all too willing partner, helping to deflect attention from BP’s destructive impacts in countries such as Iraq and Egypt. It’s time the trustees stopped stalling, ended their silence and cut the Museum’s ties to this climate wrecking fossil fuel company for good.’

The film will be uncomfortable viewing for the Museum’s Director who has consistently claimed that BP is a generous supporter and resisted commenting on the company’s controversial business record. The trustees meeting is the first to be held since the most recent sponsorship deal came to the end of its term on the 19th February and since the Royal Opera House confirmed in February that its own BP sponsorship had ended after 33 years.

Last year the pressure was ramped up on the Museum after a formal submission to its Board from climate and heritage experts spelt out how signing a new sponsorship deal could place the Museum in breach of sector-wide ethics codes. Meanwhile, a letter to the Museum from over 300 archaeologists set out how BP was ‘taking advantage of the British Museum’s status as a highly respected institution to associate its brand with values of high culture’.   

BP has partnered with the British Museum since 1996. In 2018, it began a block 5-year sponsorship deal with the British Museum, Royal Opera House, National Portrait Gallery and Royal Shakespeare Company, but now all except the British Museum have ended their partnerships with the oil and gas company. Separately, the Scottish Ballet, National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh International Festival and Tate galleries have also cut their ties to BP since 2016, as the tide has turned on fossil fuel funding across the wider cultural sector.

In February, BP announced that it would be abandoning its target of reducing its fossil fuel production by 40% by 2030, aiming instead for just a 25% production cut while also reporting that it had made record-breaking profits of £23 billion. Despite making claims of going ‘net zero’ by 2050, BP reduced its ‘low carbon spend’ from 2021-22 and has earmarked up to £6.2bn for oil and gas projects in 2023, double what it plans to invest in low carbon energy