In July, the British Museum controversially decided to renew its sponsorship deal with BP for a further five years, a decision that will keep the branding of big oil splashed onto the museum's walls while around the world, the impacts of climate change intensify. Leading up to the announcement, hundreds had taken part in creative protests against the deal with thousands more expressing their opposition online. Respected actors, artists and scientists had written to the museum's new director on his first day, calling on him to drop BP. And a damning report had unearthed the murky motivations behind BP's arts sponsorship.
It had become the biggest challenge facing the museum's new director, Hartwig Fischer. If BP were to be kept on as a sponsor, he would need to demonstrate that he and his trustees had dug into the issues at hand. That would mean carefully assessing the long list of concerns that had been raised about BP, from the company's corporate crimes over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, to its links with rights violating governments and its dire record on climate change. At the very least, the museum's decision would need to be made in an accountable and transparent way - it is a public cultural institution.
But after making a number of Freedom of Information requests to the museum, campaigners from Art Not Oil have exposed just how little scrutiny BP's new sponsorship deal was subjected to. Responses showed how the museum had no ethical fundraising policy for scrutinising sponsors and that it had no ethics committee, while the Tate - whose BP sponsorship ends next year - has both. Crucially, they revealed that the British Museum's respected Board of Trustees had not been involved in the decision to renew BP's sponsorship but were merely "informed" of the director's decision. In cutting out the trustees, the museum had backtracked on an assurance made to staff by its previous director, Neil MacGregor. In a letter to the PCS Union's Culture Group, he had said that:
"Any ethical questions which arise in the context of the Museum's activities or sponsorships are discussed and decided by the Board of Trustees. This is a responsibility that they take very seriously..."
But now, in what is a bizarre move, the British Museum has said that its trustees are responsible for "considering ethics" but whether that includes ethical questions related to BP's sponsorship "depends on the definition of ethical questions". This strange statement by the museum exposes a fundamental problem - without a clear fundraising policy that defines the ethical questions that should be addressed, the director is free to make decisions unaccountably and ignore the public's concerns.
During a panel discussion in the museum's "BP Lecture Theatre" last year, one of the trustees, Dame Liz Forgan, explained that it is the job of trustees to stand guard over the integrity of an institution in the face of "tricky questions" about sponsorship. If so, then surely the trustees need to be empowered to dig into those tricky questions or, as the Museums Association puts it in its Code of Ethics, "exercise due diligence in understanding the ethical standards of commercial partners." The Museums Association also lays out several Ethics Case Studies on its website and suggests what a museum should do when offered money from an oil company:
"The museum will also need to conduct thorough and well documented research to demonstrate that they have understood the nature of the company's business, and any claims made against it."
To date, we've not been aware of the British Museum undertaking any such research. However, it did prepare answers for its director to give during the press launch of its "Indigenous Australia" exhibition last year, ensuring that he would be able to deflect awkward questions about BP's environmental record. If the museum were to conduct thorough and well documented research on BP and test its findings against a robust ethical policy, it would reach only one conclusion: that BP's sponsorship must be dropped. For many years, Art Not Oil has been creatively highlighting BP's injustices and corporate crimes inside the museums and galleries the company sponsors. But the starting point for some of the most relevant research on BP is already inside the British Museum - many of the museums' objects are drawn from cultures and communities already experiencing the impacts of climate change.
Today, the museum's ironically titled 'Sunken Cities' exhibition, branded with BP logos, provides not just a record of the past but also a vision of the future. And while the British Museum works to preserve that record of the past, its sponsor puts the future at risk. By exploring for new sources of fossil fuels in the Great Australian Bight or in Mexican waters - countries both featured in recent BP-sponsored exhibitions and events - BP actively works against the targets set out in the Paris Climate deal. It would be hard to find a sponsor more at odds with the museum's values.
When the British Museum's reputation is being damaged by a sponsorship deal that thousands now oppose, it has a responsibility to tackle the ethical questions being raised head on. A respected museum with an international reputation should be setting the ethical standard, not falling short of it. If the museum does not now revisit its sponsorship deal with BP and fully involve trustees, staff and visitors, it risks becoming a public museum without the public's trust.