British Museum Urged to Drop Partnership With BP

Mark Ruffalo
Mark Ruffalo at the premiere of "Avengers: Age of Ultron" in London, April 21, 2015. The actor is one of many high-profile figures campaigning against the British Museum's continued partnership with oil giant BP. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Almost 100 prominent figures, including Emma Thompson and Mark Ruffalo, have signed a letter published in The Guardian urging the British Museum to abandon its partnership with “unethical” sponsor BP.

The letter, which coincided with Dr Hartwig Fischer’s first day as the new director of the museum, attacks the oil giant’s continued record of environmental damage. It was also signed by Margaret Atwood, Mark Rylance, Vivienne Westwood and Bianca Jagger.

It read: “Its [BP’s] operations are affecting lives and livelihoods across the world. The company was recently hit with the biggest criminal fine in U.S. history for its gross negligence in causing the Deepwater Horizon spill.”

That wasn’t all Fischer had to deal with. Twenty environmental activists, dressed in black and from the campaign group BP or Not BP, arrived in the museum’s courtyard on Sunday afternoon calling for the institution to sever all links with the “corporate criminal.”

Without permission, the demonstrators set up their own exhibition, entitled “A History of BP in 10 Objects,” featuring artefacts highlighting the impact of BP’s “environmental destruction and human rights abuses, including crude oil from the Gulf Coast spill, an empty tear gas cartridge from Tahrir Square and a shamanic healing tool from Colombia,” according to a blog post on the BP or Not BP website.

In December 2011, the directors of London museums the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum entered into a five-year sponsorship deal with BP worth £10 million ($14.3 million).

Just weeks ago, the Tate gallery announced that its relationship with BP would end in 2017. The oil giant denied accusations that the Tate’s decision was the result of repeated protests by angry environmental campaigners.

Campaigners hope that the British Museum will follow the Tate’s lead. Jess Worth, of campaign group Art Not Oil, was involved in organizing the letter and staging the demonstration at the British Museum.

“Cultural sponsorship allows BP to gain respectability and social power that it then uses to push for ever-more destructive oil and gas extraction,” she tells Newsweek. “By throwing a proportionately tiny amount of money at the arts (in this case, less than 1 percent of the British Museum's annual income), it gets a huge return in the form of cultural credibility and access to the rich and powerful.

“We're hopeful that the new director Hartwig Fischer will see the way the wind is blowing, and realize that it's time to end this outdated and unethical relationship.”

A British Museum spokeswoman tells Newsweek: “We are grateful to BP for their long-term commitment, sharing the vision that our artistic programmes should be made available to the widest possible audience. Discussions regarding the renewal of the partnership are continuing.”

Three weeks ago, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), one of the largest trade unions in the U.K., carried out a survey of staff at the British Museum. Sixty-two per cent of the British Museum’s own employees viewed the partnership with BP as unethical, with 66 per cent saying they support the aims of the protesters.

“We think it [the partnership with BP] is an example of the commercialization and corporatization of our public museums and galleries. It is a neo-liberal, capitalist model, which we totally reject,” Clara Paillard, PCS president, tells Newsweek.

On Monday, Paillard launched a petition calling on Fischer to “clean up its [the British Museum’s] dirty image,” with the hope that the hashtag #DropBP will trend on social media.