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Activism

Why people are protesting against the British Museum

Despite intense pressure, The British Museum shows no plans to end their financial relationship with the oil giant, BP.

Hundreds of climate activists descended on the British Museum on Saturday for a mass protest against British Petroleum’s (BP) sponsorship.

As well as the usual leafleting and banners, protesters installed new signs pointing to the “stolen artefacts” on display and held separate “mini protests” dotted across the museum.

The campaign group behind the demonstration is BP or not BP, who are determined to highlight “all of the uncomfortable facts about BP that the British Museum is trying to ignore in a way that the museum management has to pay attention.” 

The oil giant has been sponsoring the British Museum since 1996. Its “generous support” is estimated at less than 0.5 percent of the museum’s overall income, according to University College of London, but they are almost ever-present within the building’s hallowed walls.

Other art and history spaces have taken a stand. The Royal Shakespeare Company, the Natural History Museum, BFI, the Tate and National Gallery are just a handful of organisations that have cut ties with fossil fuel firms under pressure. And the British Museum is no stranger to pressure.

The museum has been targeted in recent years by campaigners from Indigenous communities who are being directly affected by BP. The company is currently opening a huge fossil fuel extraction project in Australia that destroys ancient Indigenous rock art while simultaneously sponsoring the museum’s Stonehenge exhibition which celebrates the preservation and “cultural power” of the UK’s oldest man-made monument.  

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In February, activists posed as BP staff to present fake drilling plans at Stonehenge to highlight what they see as the museum’s hypocrisy. In April, they added labels to the Stonehenge exhibition pointing to BP’s damaging activities, and last Saturday they flooded the museum with visitors and their mini protests again to apply further pressure. 

As the British Museum in London considers renewing its sponsorship deal with oil company BP climate activists from BP or Not BP stage a theatrical protest calling on the museum to drop fossil fuel funding.

And it’s not just activists. More than 300 archaeologists wrote an open letter to the British Museum’s director of trustees urging them to break off their oil sponsorship. The letter concluded by pointing out that rejecting sponsorship from BP would send a powerful message to other fossil fuel corporations that they do not align with the environmental aims of the modern world.  

And a survey conducted by the Public and Commercial Services Union found that 62 per cent of the British Museum’s own staff think its BP sponsorship deal is unethical. 

Which begs the question: why does the British Museum continue their financial ties with BP? 

The benefits to the museum are less than clear but what BP gains from the relationship is crystal.

A Channel 4 News investigation in February revealed that large corporations, including BP are “members of an influential but almost entirely unaccountable group advising the British Museum in secretive meetings.”  

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The Big Issue spoke to Chris Garrard from Culture Unstained, a research and campaigning organisation who contributed to the Channel 4 investigation. 

Through freedom of information requests, Garrard found “a lot of examples” where corporate networking had occurred, including the museum’s Days of the Dead exhibition, sponsored by BP. Garrard said it took place “right before they were about to bid on new drilling licences from the Mexican government.” 

“The British Museum becomes the backdrop of the setting where BP advance these business plans,” Garrard continued, “meet policy makers, influential figures and members of government. We challenge that partnership and say, the museum isn’t being neutral. It’s actively supporting the company to move its business forward.” 

“To avoid irreversible climate breakdown, scientists have confirmed we can drill NO new oil and gas.” – Credit: Ron Fassbender

“Claims that the British Museum is inappropriately influenced by any donations or sponsorship are simply incorrect,” a British Museum spokesperson said at the time of the Channel 4. “We follow best practice and fully comply with charitable law.”

The British Museum told The Big Issue: “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 Director and Trustees think carefully about the nature and quality of sponsorship before accepting.” 

George Osborne, the former UK chancellor, is chair of the board of trustees at the museum, which has raised eyebrows from anti-oil campaigners and some museum staff. It’s not uncommon for politically interested members to be on the board of cultural spaces: Jacob Rees-Mogg at the National Portrait Gallery and conservative donor Richard Sharp is the BBC chair.

However, in this case, Osborne is also a partner for Robey Warshaw, an investment bank which has worked with the BP in recent years on multi-billion pound deals. This preceded his job as a senior advisor for Blackrock, one of the world’s largest funders of fossil fuels.

The Big Issue asked the British Museum whether any measures were taken to ensure Osborne’s position with the banking company does not influence the museum.

A spokesperson said: “The Museum maintains a comprehensive register of interests which Museum employees – including our Trustee Board – complete as part of our compliance with relevant Charities law.

“All interests are maintained in line with the requirements of our principal regulators – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Charity Commission”.

Mr Osborne and Robey Warshaw did not respond to requests for comment.

BP or not BP say that their action “shows [BP and the museum] the strength of opposition and to make it clear that this will be a huge waste of the museum’s reputation and the public anger at the fossil fuel industry is only going to grow as the climate crisis deepens.”

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