The British Museum: a place to do business

What does BP get when it sponsors our Museums? What does the British Museum sell?

When BP sponsors the British Museum, it’s not just buying a name on a wall. This is a story of access and influence, of co-opting culture to advance its deadly business – and of the British Museum’s willingness to be co-opted.

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“BP is one of the British Museum’s longest standing corporate supporters, generously supporting the Museum’s public programme on an annual basis since 1996.”

British Museum

The British Museum praises its oil sponsor BP for being a generous supporter of the arts. But there’s nothing ‘generous’ about BP’s support of the cultural sector. As an oil company with a tarnished reputation, plastering its brand across iconic museums and galleries is a strategic business decision,allowing the company to rebrand itself as a responsible corporate citizen: a benefactor of the arts and an indispensable enabler of culture. 

This “social licence to operate” is essential to BP’s continued ability to profit from fossil fuel extraction in the face of climate catastrophe, but it’s not just about its public image.

Behind the scenes – beyond the logos on the walls of arts institutions and advertising across the country – the Museum is also a place where BP does business – and where the British Museum has been only too willing to be co-opted. Its exhibition sponsorship has offered particular opportunities to court international decision makers in places where BP hopes to do business.

As BP’s previous Vice President was happy to admit:

naturally we are going to try to match a particular exhibition with somewhere we have an interest”.

Here’s five times they made that happen. 

Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico

In 2015, the Museum was only too happy to take additional funding from BP, arranged, at short notice, specifically for BP to have its name attached to the Museum’s Mexican-themed “Days of the Dead” festival.

Photo: Diana More

The festival, to be put on in partnership with the Mexican government, came just as BP prepared to submit bids for new deepwater drilling licences in the Gulf of Mexico, after the Mexican government’s controversial Energy Reform Act had opened up the oil and gas sector to further exploitation by foreign companies – and despite widespread state repression and human rights abuses within Mexico. 

And with this partnership came special access, not least a VIP reception held in the Museum’s Great Court.

BP was keen to ensure the event delivered on its interests…

“Ladies – I hope you are enjoying the weekend. A couple of things from me: …Do we have confirmation of Mexican government representation on the evening 30 October? Do we have confirmation from DCMS re UK Government representation on the evening of 30 October?”

Email from BP representative to British Museum staff

The Museum obliged with “Mexican inspired canapés and entertainment […] provided by roaming parades and Mariachi bands” and an invitation list that included “His Excellency the Ambassador of Mexico and members of the Mexican Government.”

BP successfully secured new drilling licences in the following months. 

Drilling in the Great Australian Bight

In summer 2015, BP also sponsored the Museum’s ‘Indigenous Australia – Enduring Civilisation’ exhibition, at the same time it was pushing controversial plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight.

BP was closely involved in planning for the exhibition, and its sponsorship offered extensive opportunities for network, from as early as summer 2014 when it attended planning meetings with the British Museum and the Australian High Commission, and in its attempt to secure sponsorship for when the show later moved to Australia.

BP, the British Museum and the Australian High Commission even collaborated on a briefing on how to deal with difficult questions at a press launch, including the question: “How do you justify taking money from an organisation that has caused an environmental and social disaster”

The appropriateness of BP’s involvement never seems to have been questioned by the Museum, despite the impact of climate change on Aboriginal communities and opposition to BP’s operations, such as that of Mirning Traditional Owner, Bunna Lawrie

Shockingly, in response to an FOI request by Art Not Oil, the British Museum also confirmed that the majority of Aboriginal communities consulted during the planning of the exhibition were not even informed that BP would be the sponsor.

Reinforcing Russian relationships

In 2017, three years after Russia had annexed Crimea, BP sponsored an exhibition on archaeology from Russia: “Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia”.

With Russia a major part of BP’s business, accounting for a third of its production, primarily through a 19.75% stake in the state oil company Rosneft, this was another strategic choice.

It also came at a critical time when US and EU sanctions were threatening to limit the projects BP was able to undertake in Russia – although emails obtained under FOI laws by Culture Unstained suggest that BP and the UK government also worked together to minimise threats to BP’s business and UK trade interests throughout this time. 

Sponsoring an exhibition in partnership with the Russian State Hermitage Museum provided numerous networking opportunities to support BP’s aims, helping it embed itself in the cultural links between the UK and Russia, and to legitimise its ties to President Putin and the state oil company Rosneft. 

The British Museum again seemed happy to facilitate, even inviting the Russian Ambassador for a “small gathering” prior to the press launch of the exhibition at the British Museum, with a select guest list: just Museum Director Hartwig Fischer, Chair Richard Lambert, and two representatives from BP. 

Naturally, the Russian Ambassador is also invited to the opening:

 I’m hugely grateful to…BP that has such a remarkable record of supporting cultural …ties between our two nations…’

The dissonance of an oil company sponsoring an exhibition featuring objects that had been preserved in the frozen tombs in the Altai mountains, where climate change is now negatively impacting the lives of Indigenous people and threatening the permafrost that protects the tombs, did not seem to register. 

Profiting from Iraqi oil

Neither BP nor the British Museum seemed to see any issues with BP’s sponsorship of ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria’, on ancient Iraqi heritage, despite Britain’s long history of colonial extraction and BP’s gross profiteering from the devastating US/UK invasion in 2003, which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people.

FOI responses eventually obtained by Greg Muttitt, revealed how BP was lobbying the UK government ahead of the war for help gaining access to Iraq’s oil

‘Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there.’ 

UK Foreign Office memo, 6 November 2002

In 2009, BP “became the first international oil company to return to Iraq after a period of 35 years” with the ‘supergiant’ oilfield of Rumaila one of its major spoils.

BP used the British Museum’s 2018 exhibition publicity to promote its “sustainable social investment programme” around Rumaila “focused on improving health, access to potable water, community infrastructure and vocational training” – a valuable platform at a time when massive protests in the  region were highlighting what little benefit ordinary Iraqis obtained from oil wealth, and when gas flaring had actually been increasing. 

A 2022 investigation by the BBC and Unearthed revealed the devastating impact of BP’s gas flaring on the local community.

FOI material suggested that this launch event was particularly important to BP’s operations as the company’s representatives unusually included its ‘Group Political Advisor’. 

  • Read more about BP, Iraq and the British Museum.

Expanding fossil gas production in Egypt

Since 2010, BP has put its name to three major exhibitions on Egypt, where BP has partnered closely with successive repressive governments.

  • November 2010-March 2011: Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian book of the dead.
  • May-November 2016: Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds.
  • October 2022- February 2023: Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Egypt’s Ancient Worlds.

BP’s total investments in Egypt have doubled over this time, climbing from $17billion in 2010 to more than $35 billion, and it has dramatically expanded its extraction of fossil gas. Today, it claims to be responsible, with its partners, for 70% of Egypt’s total gas production.

Under President Sisi’s rule Egypt is now experiencing its worst human rights crisis in its modern history, but this has been no barrier to BP’s continued investments. In fact, BP’s expansion has been aided by repressive laws and practices that limit the role of civil society, while in turn, increased gas production has helped shore up Sisi’s rule.

In 2011, after the Egyptian Revolution local resistance in Idku disrupted and delayed BP’s plans to build a gas processing plant as part of its West Nile Delta developments, and the project was eventually abandoned.

However, following the introduction of a regressive anti-protest law, changes to investment laws which removed avenues for citizens to challenge contracts, and further restrictions on civil society, that kind of community opposition became all but impossible and BP’s operations resumed. In 2015, BP’s $15 billion West Nile Delta investment, to develop five gas fields, was celebrated as “the largest investment deal in Egypt’s history”.

One of the success stories at this time was resuming the West Nile Delta (WND) project with BP that had practically come to a halt due to instability. 

– Minister of Petroleum and Mineral resources Tarek El-Molla to BP Magazine in 2017

In 2016, apparently without irony, BP used its sponsorship of the British Museum’s ‘Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds’ exhibition to compare itself with underwater archaeologists, its “Fellow explorers of the Nile Delta” and to celebrate its commitment to enhancing people’s lives.

Egypt’s densely populated Nile Delta, where BP is drilling for fossil gas, is one of the most vulnerable places in the world to climate change, already suffering its impacts, and highly vulnerable to further sea level rises.

 “..we thank our partners in the UK, such as BP, for working with us in utilizing our resources to develop our economy and through such an exhibition unraveling our history as well.”

Egypt’s Ambassador to the UK thanks BP in the exhibition publicity

In 2022, during the BP-sponsored Hieroglyphs exhibition, the British Museum was urged to speak out for the release of political prisoners in Egypt, including Egyptian British writer and activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the nephew of a former Museum Trustee, who was on a prolonged hunger strike to demand his right to a consular visit from the British Embassy.

“As the Museum puts Egypt in the spotlight it has both a position of influence, and the responsibility to use it. It should not celebrate Egypt’s cultural past while ignoring the human rights situation in the present, or the climate impacts Egypt faces in the future.”

Letter to the British Museum, October 2022

However, the Museum refused to comment, claiming – just days after it had itself welcomed the Egyptian Ambassador to open its new BP-sponsored exhibition – that:

The British Museum has a duty to operate as a politically impartial institution”

Response to journalist Jack Shenker
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Yet the British Museum’s relationship with BP is not a politically neutral position.

For 27 years the British Museum has sold its services to BP, backing climate denial and delay, aiding BP with access and influence, allowing it to co-opt culture to advance its deadly business. 

What choice will it make about its future?