The British Museum’s (BM) longstanding sponsorship arrangement with the oil company British Petroleum (BP) is under further scrutiny after demonstrators posing as museum staff presented spoof “Stonehenge drilling plans” at the London museum this weekend.
The protest comes after another campaign group, Culture Unstained, released emails, obtained through Freedom of Information, which show that Hartwig Fischer, the BM's director, is “pushing ahead with renewing the museum’s controversial sponsorship deal with the oil and gas giant BP despite huge opposition to the partnership”, the group says in a statement.
The mock corporate drilling presentation—which took place during the opening of The World of Stonehenge show (until 17 July) which is sponsored by BP—was organised by the activist group BP or not BP? In the museum’s Great Court, bogus staff members such as Frank King from the “Cultural Distraction team” displayed a fake photoshopped image with a BP logo showing drilling rigs at Stonehenge. “The future meets the past. Are you ready for BP at Stonehenge” said the dummy banner on display.
A British Museum spokeswoman previously confirmed that the BM and the National Portrait Gallery are among four cultural organisations to receive sponsorship from BP as part of a £7.5m deal that came into effect in 2018, and will extend over five years. The value of thesponsorship is “commercially sensitive”, a BM spokeswoman says. Culture Unstained says on its website that last autumn Fischer and staff from BP discussed “the different options for BP’s support post-spring 2023” over tea and biscuits.
Late last year an open letter, initiated by the France-based archaeologist and postdoctoral researcher Natasha Reynold, called for the British Museum to end its sponsorship deal with BP, whose activities are “entirely at odds with values of humanistic enquiry and education”, said the signatories. The letter, which garnered 302 signatures from academics, curators and archaeologists, was submitted to the museum trustees earlier this month.
The British Museum responded previously: "The museum receives funding from BP, a long-standing corporate partner, to support the museum’s mission, providing public benefit for a global audience through their support for galleries, education facilities, curatorial posts and research projects. Without external support much programming and other major projects would not happen”
Meanwhile, Channel 4 News reported that leading figures from large corporations, including BP, are members of “a secretive corporate group guiding [the] British Museum”. The so-called Chairman’s Advisory Group comprises 30 “top business executives” with “direct and largely unaccountable access to the museum director and chairman, the former Chancellor George Osborne—all of it behind closed doors, affecting key policy issues like relations with government.”
A museum document obtained by Channel 4 News states that the group members “attend meetings at their discretion and in their personal capacity, not as representatives of their organisations”. In January 2020, the members were sent a confidential briefing document which proposed brainstorming new ideas on how the “British Museum should engage with the new government [elected in December 2019 under Boris Johnson]”. The group’s meetings are not minuted, says Channel 4 News,
A British Museum spokeswoman says: “The museum is run solely by its trustees and staff as set out in the British Museum Act 1963. Like all organisations we engage with a wide range of people from community groups to sponsors to school children. All decisions are made by the trustees and staff through our governance structure and in the best interests of the museum as a charity. The museum regards these assertions on how we manage, curate and care for the collection as inaccurate.”
The museum fully complies with charitable law, she adds, and in considering sponsorship, all decisions are taken in line with the museum’s Acceptance of Donations and Sponsorship policy. “Claims that the British Museum is inappropriately influenced by any donations or sponsorship are simply incorrect,” the spokeswoman says.