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British Museum's Decision to Renew BP Sponsorship Is Backward-Looking

29/07/2016 15:24 | Updated 29 July 2016

By waving BP through their doors for another five years, the British Museum and its famous cultural neighbours - the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House - have shown a remarkable lack of judgement. Oil giant BP should never have got past the bag checks at these famous, popular and leading cultural institutions, let alone be invited to emblazon its logo on their walls, or as a recent report by the Art Not Oil coalition revealed, enjoy such perks as using these spaces to secure political access and further oil plans.

BP's financial performance is almost as poor as the judgement of the cultural institutions that have chosen to renew their sponsorship deals. Even those who usually are cheerleaders for the company are expressing their concerns: "BP profits disappoint". That's putting it mildly: profits in the second quarter of 2016 were almost 50% lower than in the corresponding period in 2015. Do Britain's premier cultural institutions really want to lash themselves to the mast of a sinking ship?

With the sponsorships up for renewal this summer, this would have been a golden opportunity for fellow cultural icons to follow Tate's lead and end their reputation-compromising associations with BP. Nicholas Serota, the director at Tate, recently compared the level of controversy around BP's sponsorship deals to the conditions that brought about the end of tobacco sponsorship of the arts. He reflected that forty years ago public institutions, "took sponsorship from tobacco companies. Now in the main, they don't." Tate saw that the writing's on the wall for the oil industry, and admirably took the decision to cut ties with an industry which, like tobacco, was using advertising and sponsorship as cover for its damaging product.

But in the British Museum and others, BP has found friends that are happy to grit their teeth through escalating protests in order to help BP clean up its image. Yet cultural institutions of this stature weren't built to soften the image of businesses who view action on climate change solely as a PR challenge. With this move, world-renowned institutions have chosen to promote an oil company's brand at a time when the urgent need to break free from fossil fuels has never been so obvious or possible. The Arctic ice is vanishing, the Great Barrier Reef is dying and we've just experienced the 14th consecutive month of record-breaking temperatures. This isn't just down to BP of course, but they are a company whose slick sound bites on playing a part in limiting climate change should barely survive even the most cursory look at what it really gets up to - digging up and burning more and more oil.

The British Museum professes to be dedicated to conservation, yet has pledged its allegiance to a company responsible for the worst marine oil spill in history, whose oil business leaves a trail of destruction - on families, communities, fragile environments and our climate - and its business plan will lock in more of the same.

There's no doubt that BP sponsorship comes with a lot of baggage for these cultural institutions. They have faced criticism from leading cultural figures such as Mark Rylance and Emma Thompson, scientists, museum workers and escalating protests from groups including Art Not Oil, BP or Not BP? and Liberate Tate. In May, Greenpeace activists scaled the front entrance columns of the British Museum at the opening of the ironically titled Sunken Cities exhibition, sponsored by BP. The criticism over BP's suitability as an arts sponsor has never sounded louder. These four leading institutions have stuck their fingers firmly in their ears. Time will tell how long the welcome mat stays rolled out for BP.

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