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Demonstrators in the Great Court of the British Museum on Saturday, February 16. Photo: Diana More. Courtesy of BP or Not BP?

British Museum Engages with Climate Activists in Public Debate, Following Trustee’s Resignation

The British Museum defended its sponsorship deal with British Petroleum in a debate with climate activists in the London offices of Tortoise Media on Wednesday, July 31. The event marked the first time the institution agreed to publicly engage with a climate campaign group over the ethics of accepting money from the oil giant and comes on the heels of museum trustee Ahdaf Soueif’s decision to step down over the controversial partnership, among other issues.

According to the Financial Times, during the debate, Richard Lambert, chair of the museum’s board of trustees, claimed that the museum is under “tight financial pressure”—especially since public funding has been reduced by one third since 2010—and that corporate sponsorship was part of the answer to how the institution would make up for the loss of public support. Lambert added that nearly five million people have visited exhibitions backed by BP. While he made it clear that dropping BP would amount to a financial loss that could impact programming, Lambert did not address how the museum’s relationship with BP is viewed as an endorsement of the fossil-fuel industry. He also declared that Soueif’s resignation did not change the museum’s stance on the matter.

Chris Garrard, a codirector of Culture Unstained, and Peter Mather, the regional president of BP for the United States and Europe, also participated in the debate. Garrard argued that the museum is artwashing BP’s money and that its actions are at odds with the concerns of the larger public. He also cited BP’s push to expand its offshore business following President Donald Trump’s election and its lobbying for reduced regulations despite its track record of causing ecological disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, which led to the spillage of three million barrels of crude oil into the ocean off the Gulf of Mexico.

Mather responded by acknowledging that climate change is “the defining issue of our era” and by stressing that BP is investing in renewable energy. “If you sit in the head office of BP today, you’ll spend much more time talking about the energy transition . . . and how we’re going to change our portfolio than about how we’re going to drill,” he said.

Protests sparked by UK museums accepting funding from fossil-fuel companies have occurred numerous times over the years. Recently, activism against donors from the oil and gas industry has escalated. The increased actions may be attributed to the growing movement against toxic philanthropy in the cultural sector and the mounting international concern over the climate crisis. Among the groups that have targeted the British Museum are the Art Not Oil Coalition, BP or not BP?, and Greenpeace, which have demonstrated in front of and within the halls of the institution.

While the British Museum has not disclosed how much money it is getting from BP, its sponsorship agreement is part of a larger plan that will divide roughly $9.4 million among four institutions, including the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and London’s National Portrait Gallery, over five years.

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