Revealed: British Museum secretly negotiating new BP deal despite opposition

In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, we’ve discovered that the Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, is preparing the ground to renew the museum’s controversial partnership with BP and has been holding meetings with the oil giant to discuss ‘options for BP’s support post-Spring 2023’ since last September. These new emails and meeting briefings reveal how:

  • Director Hartwig Fischer spoke to BP in June 2021 and invited staff from the company to the museumto discuss the future of the partnership in the subsequent months. And at a meeting in the autumn, Fischer and staff from BP discussed ‘the different options for bp’s support post-Spring 2023’ in his office over tea, coffee and biscuits, following a tour of the museum that was focussed on ‘framing the relationship with BP’ so far.
  • The substance of the discussions are shrouded in secrecy with 7 pages of the 11-page meeting briefing entirely blacked out and the remaining pages heavily redacted. But the British Museum clearly intends to seek a new agreement with BP. In its response to our FOI, the British Museum states that the information which has been removed from the briefing document because ‘to provide information on approaches made to one potential sponsor may jeopardise our efforts to obtain sponsorship from that partner and elsewhere.’
  • Following the meeting, the Director wrote to BP saying it was ‘wonderful to have the opportunity to discuss the future – particularly as our organisations focus more on sustainability’, demonstrating a clear lack of understanding of BP’s business plans, which involve exploring for new fossil fuels and to still be drilling in 2050. In that follow-up email, the Director was advancing plans for a ‘brainstorm’ with a team from BP, as part of a future meeting where they would discuss their next steps.
  • The Director and his team have failed to follow standard practice on fundraising and the Museum’s Association ‘Code of Ethics’. In response to a separate FOI, the British Museum confirmed to us that it ‘does not hold any form of due diligence report or record on BP or its standing as a company and perception among the general public/media’ – but the Director has already started discussing a future partnership.

If the British Museum were going to follow anything close to best practice, it would be taking this time to properly scrutinise BP’s business and climate claims, weighing up the huge reputational damage caused by BP’s sponsorship and consulting its own staff and stakeholders about this controversial decision. It would also be taking into account the fact that BP is still investing in new oil and fossil gas exploration and making billions of dollars in profits from the fuel price crisis which is causing many consumers to have to decide whether to heat or eat. A company such as BP is clearly at odds with the museum’s official ’Sustainability Ethos’ which claims the museum is ‘committed to improving our sustainability throughout all aspects of the British Museum’s operation and supply chains, from energy usage to waste management, from buildings to programming, from our global collaborations to new connections.’

In 2016, BP’s sponsorship of the museum was already facing high-profile opposition but the decision to renew the deal for another five years was taken behind closed doors by the Director and Chair, and the Board of Trustees were informed after it had been signed and just before it was made public. So in order to understand whether the museum is planning to follow best practice this time around, Culture Unstained’s lawyers wrote to the museum early last year to ask what decision-making process would be followed and how stakeholders could contribute to it. When it replied four months later in June 2021, it said that ‘the Museum’s agreement [with BP] has some time left to run, and as a result, no decision as to a future potential renewal is currently under consideration, nor is it likely to be relevant for some time’

It appears that claim was highly misleading. Emails disclosed to us now show that just days before that letter was sent to our lawyers, British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer had had a call with staff from BP, setting in motion plans for an in-person meeting where they would discuss the future of the partnership. 

Based on the timings of when the last contract with BP was renewed, we expect the decision will likely be taken by May this year. It’s urgent that we shine a spotlight on this shady process and make sure that the museum doesn’t make unethical deals behind closed doors. The Director of the British Museum is pushing ahead with a flawed and unaccountable decision-making process that will only do further damage to the Museum’s standing and reputation; more large-scale protests, high-profile criticism and widespread public opposition will be inevitable if the deal is renewed and as climate impacts intensify.

  • The Charities Commission is clear that before forming any funding partnership, you must ‘Know Your Donor’. By uncritically stating that both BP and the British Museum are moving towards ‘a greater focus on sustainability’, the Director appears to not fully understand the impacts of BP’s business on people and the climate. There therefore needs to be an objective assessment of whether the company is an appropriate partner for the Museum. 
  • The Board of Trustees now must fulfil their legal duty to protect the Museum’s reputation by taking control of the decision-making process and rejecting any decision that has the potential to negatively impact on the museum and its reputation for years to come, and does not align with the museum’s stated commitments on sustainability.
  • As part of that process, the Board should consult with wider staff and stakeholders, and ensure that comprehensive due diligence checks drawing upon independent sources are undertaken. Any decision about a future partnership must be based on accurate information on BP’s record as a major polluter and not the company’s widely disputed claims of going ‘net zero’.Crucially, Chair George Osborne must recuse himself from all discussions on BP’s future relationship with the British Museum given his clear conflict of interest, as BP is a client of the boutique investment firm Robey Warshaw where he is a partner.

This cynical sponsorship arrangement with BP is aimed at rehabilitating a mega-polluter’s tarnished image and will do huge damage to the museum’s standing, especially as it attempts to position itself as more of a leader on climate issues. It’s vital that the relationship ends at the close of the current contract.  


Contents

  1. Museum says ‘no decision is under consideration’ as it sets up discussion with BP
  2. Director sets out ‘the options for BP’s support post-Spring 2023’
  3. ‘Finding another time to discuss our partnership’
  4. Director claims museum and BP share ‘a greater focus on sustainability’
  5. Director‘s ethically flawed approach fails to follow standard practice
  6. The partnership with BP must not be renewed

1. Museum says ‘no decision is under consideration’ as it sets up discussion with BP

The British Museum’s current sponsorship deal with BP, which was signed in 2016 and formally began in 2018, had been due to come to an end this year. Under normal circumstances, negotiations around its future would have been done and dusted by now. The official sponsorship agreement with BP sets out that if BP had wanted to renew it under similar terms, it would have had to notify the museum of that intention by 31st December 2021.

Following an FOI request, we discovered that this planned timetable had shifted as BP and the British Museum had agreed to a one-year extension to the sponsorship agreement back in November 2020, due to the museum closing during the nationwide lockdown and having not yet hosted the full number of BP-sponsored exhibitions originally planned.

We were therefore keen to understand what timeline and decision-making process the museum would be following and, early last year, asked our lawyers to write to the museum. Four months later, on 30th June 2021, the British Museum informed our lawyers that: 

‘The Museum’s agreement [with BP] has some time left to run, and as a result, no decision as to a future potential renewal is currently under consideration, nor is it likely to be relevant for some time’. 
However, it turns out that Director Hartwig Fischer had spoken with staff from BP just two days earlier, on the 28th June. The following day, he also sent them an email saying he was looking forward to ‘continuing discussions around our long-standing partnership’ and that they would ‘shortly arrange a time for us to welcome you to the museum soon’.

Fischer’s enthusiasm for continuing discussions with BP was echoed by another member of senior museum staff, who also referred to ‘continuing conversations over the coming months’, strongly suggesting that a stance on the potential future of the relationship with BP, presumably based on a timetable leading up to the point of decision, had already been developed:

Staff at the museum then moved ahead with making plans for a 2-hour meeting for September 2021.

View the emails in full by clicking here

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2. Director sets out ‘the options for BP’s support post-Spring 2023’

The proposed meeting was ultimately scheduled for the 29th September 2021 and would encompass a tour of the museum, starting at the ‘BP Lecture Theatre’ and then on to ‘back of house for a tour of the Mummy Store room’, before sitting down to discuss the future of the partnership in ‘Hartwig’s office’. Later, they would also be taken on a curator-led tour of the BP-sponsored Nero exhibition. It seems clear that Fischer and his team were working hard to impress BP.

An internal email between museum staff making preparations for BP’s visit to the museum reveals that the tour was an integral part of the visit, to show BP ‘significant points for their discussions’.

View the email in full here

Crucially, the agenda then explicitly states that they would discuss ‘the different options for BP’s support post-Spring 2023’. The subsequent bullet points, which presumably set out the options under discussion, have been redacted. 

In fact, the background to the whole meeting and discussion remains shrouded in secrecy. 7 pages of the 11-page briefing document disclosed by the British Museum aren’t just redacted, they are entirely blacked out. 
What is the wider background to this controversial partnership that the Museum has chosen to keep hidden? What are the proposals for the future that the Director wants to keep out of the spotlight? And, crucially, did they discuss the huge opposition to the partnership, including the massive protests and the resignation of Trustee Ahdaf Soueif over the issue, and the fact several other cultural institutions have ended their BP deals in recent years?

Following the Agenda, a section on the background to the discussions confirms that Fischer’s earlier call with BP on the 28th June had involved discussing the history of the relationship with BP, as well as the Museum’s future plans. While the subsequent bullet points are redacted, it can be reasonably inferred from the museum’s response to our FOI that BP’s role within those future plans will have been one topic under consideration, with it saying the redactions were made because ‘to provide information on approaches made to one potential sponsor may jeopardise our efforts to obtain sponsorship from that partner and elsewhere.’

View the meeting briefing and agenda in full by clicking here

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3. ‘Finding another time to discuss our partnership’

Emails disclosed by the museum did reveal that not all of the intended guests for the meeting on the 29th September were ultimately able to attend, with what appears to be a senior member of BP caught up in the fuel supply crisis that was unfolding at that time.

In its response to our FOI, the British Museum somewhat implausibly claims that:

‘We would further note that as one member of BP was unable to attend the meeting, the remaining attendees did not hold any substantive discussions and we do not hold any information indicating that the points noted in the Agenda were ever discussed.’

View the emails in full by clicking here

However, the 14th October is later scheduled as an opportunity for the member of BP who had been unable to attend to also discuss the future of the partnership with Fischer, ahead of a private event taking place at the museum later that evening.

Although it’s a shorter discussion proposed, what appears to be an identical briefing document was generated ahead of the meeting and, once again, many pages are blacked out with key passages of text redacted.

View the meeting briefing for the 14th October 2021 here

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4. Director claims museum and BP share ‘a greater focus on sustainability’ 

In what appears to be an attempt to shore up the relationship with BP, Fischer asks for a personal message to be passed on to the staff member from BP the following day. Significantly, he writes that: 

‘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’. 

Fischer’s comments demonstrate a clear lack of objectivity. It would appear that he has not engaged in any serious scrutiny of BP’s business and its climate claims. Many analyses have shown that BP’s business is at odds with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, with the company continuing to invest in new exploration for oil and gas. In fact, BP was excluded from sponsoring or having any formal involvement in the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow because, in the words of UN High Level Champion Nigel Topping, ‘existing commitments from the oil industry are insufficient and don’t align with global climate goals’. Meanwhile, BP’s much-touted ‘Net Zero’ plan is full of loopholes and actually leaves out around one third of its production which comes from its stake in the Russian state oil firm Rosneft.

Crucially, Fischer says he looks forward to continuing the discussion and setting up a ‘brainstorm’ with the team from BP, giving a clear sense that both parties are exploring the form that a future partnership could take. 

View the email in full here

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5. Director‘s ethically flawed approach fails to follow standard practice

It’s now widely known that the Science Museum signed up to a controversial ‘non-disparagement’ clause with its fossil fuel sponsor Shell and, more recently, Adani. Our FOIs have revealed that the British Museum’s contract with BP includes a similar ‘good repute’ clause, which commits the British Museum to taking ‘all reasonable and proper steps to ensure that it does nothing’ that may damage the reputation of BP. While it is less strongly worded than the Science Museum’s clause, it arguably creates the conditions which protect BP from being subjected to reasonable scrutiny and could create a ‘chilling effect’ within the institution. 

View the official sponsorship agreement in full here

And not only has the museum agreed to take reasonable steps to protect its sponsor’s reputation but, in a response to our FOI received by us in August 2021, the British Museum confirmed that it does not hold ‘any form of due diligence report or record on BP or its standing as a company and perception among the general public/media’.

What’s troubling is that there is little sense that there has been any proper scrutiny of whether a continued relationship with BP is in the best interests of the museum or aligns with its stated commitments on climate change. At the very least, the British Museum should have undertaken some form of due diligence checks on BP, taken stock of how multiple cultural organisations have now cut their ties to fossil fuels, and recognised how its stance on sponsorship has put it at odds with the wider cultural sector and on the wrong side of history. 

Putting together a due diligence report before discussing potential new partnerships in a concrete way is considered standard practice. 

The Museums Association’s ‘Code of Ethics’ says museums should:

‘Exercise due diligence in understanding the ethical standards of commercial partners with a view to maintaining public trust and integrity in all museum activities.’ 

It is also the responsibility of the Board of Trustees to make sure these checks happen, with the Charities Commission stating that:

‘A significant aspect of a trustee’s legal duty to protect charitable assets, and to do so with care, means that there should be proper due diligence checks on those organisations that work closely with the charity.’

In 2018, the British Museum also told us that:

‘[Due diligence] reports are created for organisations and individuals who have not previously donated to the Museum. These are normally retained for one year.’

But an effective due diligence process relies upon reviewing past records, as well as updating and creating new reports in light of fresh developments and ethical shifts. In its report on ‘Due Diligence Processes for Potential Donations’, the National Audit Office makes clear why: 

‘Audit trails enable staff to demonstrate compliance with an organisation’s policies and procedures to trustees, regulators and auditors.’

The approach undertaken by the British Museum in relation to BP is ethically flawed and arguably does not comply with regulators’ expectations.

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6. The partnership with BP must not be renewed

These emails and documents give a clear indication that Hartwig Fischer has already decided the museum should be associated with one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers beyond 2023, at a time when we need to be rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels. BP plans to still be producing oil and gas beyond 2050 and is currently investing in new exploration for fossil fuels, disregarding the International Energy Agency’s report which showed that no such investments are possible if we are to keep global heating below 1.5°C – the target set in the Paris Climate Agreement. And right now, BP is continuing to make huge profits due to the rapidly rising energy prices that are forcing many to have to decide whether they can afford to heat or eat.

The Director of the British Museum is pushing ahead with a flawed and unaccountable decision-making process that will only do further damage to the Museum’s standing and reputation; more large-scale protests, high-profile criticism and widespread public opposition will be inevitable if the deal is renewed and as climate impacts intensify.

  • The Charities Commission is clear that before forming any funding partnership, you must ‘Know Your Donor’. By uncritically stating that both BP and the British Museum are moving towards ‘a greater focus on sustainability’, the Director appears to not fully understand the impacts of BP’s business on people and the climate. There therefore needs to be an objective assessment of whether the company is an appropriate partner for the Museum. 
  • The Board of Trustees now must fulfil their legal duty to protect the Museum’s reputation by taking control of the decision-making process and rejecting any decision that has the potential to negatively impact on the museum and its reputation for years to come, and does not align with the museum’s stated commitments on sustainability.
  • As part of that process, the Board should consult with wider staff and stakeholders, and ensure that comprehensive due diligence checks drawing upon independent sources are undertaken. Any decision about a future partnership must be based on accurate information on BP’s record as a major polluter and not the company’s widely disputed claims of going ‘net zero’.
  • Crucially, Chair George Osborne must recuse himself from all discussions on BP’s future relationship with the British Museum given his clear conflict of interest, as BP is a client of the boutique investment firm Robey Warshaw where he is a partner.

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