The future for the British Museum could be very different indeed. That was the message from the organisation’s chair George Osborne in his annual speech to Trustees last month, in which he announced a “complete reimagination” of the museum, under a billion-pound masterplan that will be revealed next year.
Among the hints of potential loans of its exhibits, leading to further speculation over the Parthenon marbles, was one explicit promise on energy. “Our goal is to be a net zero carbon museum,” said Osborne, “no longer a destination for climate protest but instead an example of climate solution”.
If that’s the future, however, it hasn’t arrived yet. On Sunday, the museum’s Great Court was once again the scene of a protest by climate campaigners, the latest in a long succession of actions calling on the institution to drop its longtime sponsor BP. Activists from the group BP or not BP? chanted and held banners that read “Drop BP”.
“This must be the last BP-sponsored exhibition at the British Museum,” said Lydia, a spokesperson for the group. “I’m taking part in this action because there is no place for fossil fuels in our arts and culture sector. The British Museum must drop BP now.”
How, then, to interpret Osborne’s comments? Could the BM finally be ready to ditch BP? Certainly the museum has been unusually quiet about the future of the partnership. The energy giant has been a leading sponsor since 1996, with the most recent five-year arrangement having been extended for a year because of Covid.
That deal was announced more than a year ahead. But with two months to go until the existing contract expires at the conclusion of the BP-supported Hieroglyphics exhibition in February – which has been particularly controversial given BP’s work in Egypt – neither side has yet said anything about whether the partnership will continue.
Much has changed in the arts world since that deal was struck in 2016. After the Tate ended its long association with the oil giant that year, the Edinburgh international festival, National Galleries Scotland, Royal Shakespeare Company, National Portrait Gallery and Scottish Ballet all cut ties with BP, amid a growing visitor backlash against fossil fuel companies’ sponsorship of the arts.
Despite this, there were indications the museum intended to renew the partnership, according to documents obtained under freedom of information legislation by the campaign group Culture Unstained. However, further responses appeared to suggest that the discussions may have petered out.
Chris Garrard, the organisation’s co-director, said he was optimistic that those disclosures, and the uncharacteristic silence to date, meant the deal would not be renewed. “I’m really hoping that the director takes the opportunity to show some leadership and ends the relationship with BP completely.”
Given the scale of Osborne’s masterplan, however, he said he was concerned that rather than severing ties, the museum might seek BP funding for projects away from its highly visible exhibitions. However, said Garrard, “the backlash to forming any kind of new relationship with BP, after having said that you want to be a net zero carbon museum, would be huge. Because [that] would just be such a glaring contradiction”.
In a statement, the museum said it would not comment on commercially sensitive matters, but that “support from the corporate sector is essential for museums and arts organisations in times of reduced funding.
“As a major UK visitor attraction we are conscious of the impact of our activity on the environment. We are committed to reducing that impact throughout all aspects of the museum’s operation, from energy usage to waste management, from new buildings to exhibitions. We expect our partners and contractors to support us in these efforts.
“As the museum begins developing its masterplan, we are clear that environmental sustainability will be a strategic priority.”
BP did not respond to a request for comment.
Rodney Harrison, professor of heritage studies at UCL Institute of Archaeology, said the museum’s relationship with BP was “now very much out of step with the [arts] sector”.
“BP have been, and continue to be associated with projects which have a devastating impact on cultural heritage globally. Archaeologists, teachers, heritage professionals and climate scientists – as well as its own staff members – have been calling on the British Museum’s director and trustees to rethink their relationship with BP for years.
“Given the museum’s goal to act for the preservation of the world’s cultures, and the current funding period is due to expire shortly, now would be the right time for the museum to act in their own and the public interest to cut ties with BP.”