April 3, 2016; The Guardian
In a letter to the Guardian, over 100 actors, writers, scientists, and politicians urged the director of the British Museum to end the museum’s partnership with BP when the oil giant’s sponsorship contract ends this year. The letter proposes that retaining the corporate sponsorship would “seriously damage the British Museum’s reputation and place it firmly on the wrong side of history.”
The British Museum is funded through Britain’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but receives a hefty percentage of its income through private and corporate donations. In 2011, it joined with three similarly funded organizations—the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and the Tate art galleries—in a five-year sponsorship deal with BP worth £10 million. BP has since sponsored several of the museum’s popular exhibits, including some of its most popular new offerings.
The letter to the Guardian was signed by such actors as Mark Rylance and Mark Ruffalo, artists and writers including Naomi Klein and Margaret Atwood, and researchers including Jane Goodall and physicist Sir Tom Kibble. It comes after BP ended its 26-year partnership with the Tate last month. BP blamed the deal’s demise on a “challenging business environment,” not on the multi-year campaigns to end the sponsorship. With the Tate sponsorship gone, activists continue to pressure British arts institutions to end partnerships with the oil company.
A coalition of 15 activist groups participated an occupation of the museum last fall, and the group BP or Not BP has staged protest performances discussing BP’s questionable record on environmental protection and human rights. The appointment of new leadership to the British Museum has fueled hopes that the museum will move in a different direction. (The open letter posted in the Guardian was directed to Dr. Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s new director.)
The controversy behind oil money’s involvement in museums isn’t new, nor is it strictly British. The Smithsonian has come under fire for David Koch’s membership on boards of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. (Apparently Mark Ruffalo’s as much a fan of Koch as he is of BP.) But the ongoing protests against BP sponsorships has raised the question: What should oil companies be allowed to do with their profits?—Lauren Karch