For a cultural institution, making a sponsorship agreement with a fossil fuel company might seem strange nowadays amid the growing effects of the climate crisis. However, that’s exactly what the British Museum has just done, signing a 10-year deal with British Petroleum (BP) — which will pay 50 million pounds for a massive redevelopment of the museum.
The relationship between BP and the British Museum goes back to 1996 and campaigners have long questioned the decision to take money from a fossil fuel company. It was thought that the museum had ended the sponsorship last year, based on information requests made by The Guardian, but that was evidently not the case.
The minutes taken in the museum’s trustee meeting in which the deal was approved show discontent among many of the trustees. The Art Newspaper revealed that one trustee resigned and that the museum’s head of security warned that the sponsorship could risk the safety of the collection, considering activists’ protests this year in museums.
Several cultural sites in the UK, such as the National Gallery, have recently ended sponsorship contracts with energy firms amid protests. However, others just don’t seem to care. The Science Museum in London, for example, signed sponsorship contracts with Equinor and Shell, some of which even included a gagging clause.
Chris Garrard, a co-director of the campaign group Culture Unstained, said that the agreement would be formally challenged. “The only way you can sign up to a new sponsorship deal with a planet-wrecking fossil fuel company in 2023 is by burying your head in the sand and pretending the climate crisis isn’t happening,” he told the BBC.
The masterplan will include a new Energy Centre to facilitate “the phasing out of the use of fossil fuels within the museum’s estate”. It also includes the redevelopment of a third of the museum’s galleries and the opening of the new Archaeological Research Collection. In a media statement, the museum said the partnership will help to deliver on plans “to maintain public access for generations to come,” saying it’s “very grateful” for BP’s support.
“The British Museum is one of the largest and most visited cultural institutions in the world but some of its buildings are over 200 years old and in urgent need of refurbishment. That’s why the Masterplan is so essential — and it’s exciting to be moving forward with our plans,” Charlie Mayfield, chair of the masterplan committee, said in a press release.
The museum has encountered substantial resistance regarding its sponsorship agreements. In 2019, Ahdaf Soueif, a former trustee, resigned in objection to the museum’s position. Also, in 2022, over 300 heritage professionals expressed concern in a letter to the museum, stating that BP was leveraging the British Museum’s status to align its brand with high cultural values.
The BP sponsorship could potentially address other recent problems the museum has been facing. About 1,500 artifacts have been stolen in recent years leading the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer to resign alongside his deputy Jonathan Williams. Also, the museum has been involved in many restitution claims, including the Parthenon marbles, with the Greek government asking for them to be sent back.
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