What’s It Going to Take for the British Art World to Stop Cozying Up to Big Oil?


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What’s It Going to Take for the British Art World to Stop Cozying Up to Big Oil?

We went down to a protest exhibit at the British Museum to find out whether anyone still cares about BP's relationship with iconic UK cultural institutions.
April 11, 2016, 4:00am

Photo: London Mexico Solidarity

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

The British Museum's Great Court is a beautiful place. Light streams through its curved glass and steel roof, bouncing off pristine white floors. These two acres of space are loaded with meaning: a statement about the not-quite-faded power of modern Britain; a bright, illuminated courtyard that leads to rooms housing the world's treasures, the spoils and plunder of a once-imperial power.


A banner hangs on the wall for upcoming exhibition Sunken Cities, which will tell the story of two Egyptian towns that, until recently, had stood forgotten beneath the surface of the sea. In the corner of the banner is a large green logo: BP, one of the world's largest oil and gas companies and, since 1996, a corporate sponsor of the British Museum.

Last Sunday, April 3, theatrical campaign group BP or Not BP? smuggled ten items into the museum's Great Court. They set up an unsanctioned exhibition called A History of BP in 10 Objects, to protest the relationship between BP and one of the country's largest public cultural institutions, and to show museum visitors the extent of what they perceive to be the oil company's corporate crimes.

This action followed news that Tate's long-standing relationship with BP was ending, and came a few days before the announcement that BP wouldn't sponsor the Edinburgh international festival anymore. With a new director, Hartwig Fischer, joining the British Museum this week, BP or Not BP? wanted to build on their movement's momentum. "We want to mark out oil as being unacceptable," says Chris Garrard, of activist group Art Not Oil, walking through the exhibition.

The objects presented made the case fairly well. There was crude oil from the Louisiana coastline, a by-product of the Deepwater Horizon spill. There was a Lamassu charm from Iraq, where secret memos have exposed the alleged link between oil firms—including BP—and the invasion and subsequent carve-up of the country.

One of the pieces in the totally unplanned exhibition. Photo: Amy Scaife

Photo: London Mexico Solidarity

There was a photo of Colombian trade unionist Gilberto Torres, who is currently suing BP for its links to a venture trading company that he alleges was involved in his kidnap and torture by paramilitaries. And there was a statement from Bunna Lawrie, a member of Australia's indigenous community fighting BP's plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight, an area of outstanding natural beauty and deep cultural significance.


Having said that, did any of this seem to matter to people who stumbled across the unofficial exhibit? The museum's security team, after establishing that nothing dangerous was going to happen, let the exhibition go on. Families milled about. A Spanish dad, having listened intently to a description of what was going on, decided it was "very interesting." His son mentioned the Greek government's demand that the Elgin Marbles, the ancient Greek sculptures housed in the museum, be returned.

"I tend to lump all oil companies together under one big evil umbrella," a middle-aged Englishman told me. "I had no idea they were sponsoring the museum," he added, before telling his two young sons about greenwashing, wherein a company whose practices are harmful to the environment presents itself as environmentally friendly.

Opponents of BP's greenwashing have had good news of late. The ending of the oil giant's relationships with Tate and the Edinburgh international festival has been greeted with jubilation by groups like Liberate Tate. BP, for its part, points to sharply falling oil prices and puts the end of such sponsorship down to what a company spokesperson told me was a "challenging business environment in the global oil industry."

Anti-oil campaigners roll their eyes at this explanation: they say that based on BP's 2015 financial figures, the amount of money the company gave Tate was the equivalent of two hours of profit. BP or Not BP? used a freedom of information request to find out that, based on financial figures running from 2000-2011, money from BP accounted for only 0.8 percent of the British Museum's budget.

Photo: Amy Scaife

But ending the collaboration between the petroleum corporation and the museum won't be easy. Spokespeople at BP and the British Museum were both very positive about their institutions' relationship. "The British Museum is exceptionally grateful to BP for their loyal and ongoing support," a museum spokesperson told VICE. "It is only possible to develop and host temporary exhibitions with this kind of external support… The income generated through corporate partnerships is vital to the mixed economy of successful arts organizations and enables us to deliver a rich and vibrant cultural program."


BP, for its part, says it is "proud to partner the British Museum." Despite its recent withdrawal from Tate, the company thinks that it is "right that we contribute to British society in many ways, including culture." Asked about BP's contribution to climate change, the spokesperson said that the company was "playing its part by advocating a price on carbon, providing lower carbon products such as natural gas and renewables, pursuing energy efficiency, and supporting research"—a claim disputed by a number of climate scientists in an open letter published on April 3.

The sponsorship contract between BP and the British Museum is up for renewal, and could leave the oil company's logo plastered across the museum until at least 2022. The British Museum may sit at the center of an establishment that thinks nothing of continued fossil fuel exploration, but with the science growing ever clearer, can it really afford to look so out of step with the times? This was the one question the British Museum's spokesperson did not answer.

Once I'd left the museum, I got in touch with Professor Paul Gilroy, a cultural studies scholar currently based at King's College London, who'd worked with Tate on several occasions. What did he make of the relationship between BP and the British Museum?

"I think a parting of ways between BP and our great, national museums is long overdue," he said. "We talk a lot about privatization in the economic sense. This is privatization in the cultural sense. I understand that checks change hands, which help to defend those institutions from financial pressures, but in this domain of unequal exchanges they are always going to be selling more than they can gain. Let public mean public."

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