The future of the British Museum could be very different. That was the message from the organization’s chairman, George Osborne, in his annual address to trustees last month, in which he announced a “complete reimagining” of the museum, as part of a $1 billion master plan. books that will be revealed next year.
Among the hints of potential loans from its exhibits, leading to further speculation about the Parthenon Marbles, was an explicit promise about energy. “Our goal is to be a net zero carbon museum,” Osborne said, “no longer a destination for climate protest but rather an example of climate solution.”
If this is the future, however, it hasn’t happened yet. On Sunday, the Great Court of the museum was once again the scene of event by climate activists, the latest in a long line of actions calling on the institution to drop its longtime sponsor BP. The group activists BP or no BP? chanted and held banners that read “Drop BP”.
“This is to be the last BP-sponsored exhibition at the British Museum,” said Lydia, a spokesperson for the group. “I am participating 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 words? Could the BM finally be ready to abandon BP? Admittedly, the museum has been exceptionally quiet about the future of the partnership. The energy giant has been a major sponsor since 1996, with the last five-year deal extended for a year due to Covid.
This agreement was announced more than a year in advance. But two months from the expiry of the existing contract at the end of the Hieroglyphics exhibition supported by BP in February – which was particularly controversial given BP’s work in Egypt – neither party has yet said anything. or on the continuation of the partnership.
A lot 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, the National Galleries Scotland, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Ballet have all cut ties with BP, amid a growing backlash from visitors against the sponsorship of the arts by fossil fuel companies.
Despite this, there were indications the museum intended to renew the partnership, according to documents obtained under freedom of information legislation by campaign group Culture Unstained. However, other responses seemed to suggest that the talks may have stalled.
Chris Garrard, co-director of the organization, said he was optimistic the revelations, and the unusual silence to date, meant the deal would not be renewed. “I really hope the director takes the opportunity to show some leadership and end the relationship with BP altogether.”
Given the scale of Osborne’s master plan, however, he expressed concern that rather than sever ties, the museum might seek BP funding for projects away from its highly visible exhibits. However, Garrard said, “The backlash of forming any new relationship with BP, after saying you wanted to be a net zero carbon museum, would be huge. Because [that] would just be such a blatant 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 organizations in times of reduced funding.
“As a major UK tourist attraction, we are aware of the impact our business has on the environment. We are committed to reducing this impact in all aspects of museum operation, from energy consumption to waste management, from new buildings to exhibits. We expect our partners and contractors to support us in these efforts.
“As the museum begins to develop its master plan, we know clearly 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’s Institute of Archaeology, said the museum’s relationship with BP was “now very out of step with the [arts] sector”.
“BP has been and continues to be associated with projects that have a devastating impact on the world’s cultural heritage. Archaeologists, teachers, heritage professionals and climatologists – as well as members of its own staff – have been asking the director and trustees of the British Museum for years to rethink their relationship with BP.
“Given the museum’s goal to act for the preservation of the cultures of the world, and the current funding period is due to expire soon, it would be a good time for the museum to act in its own interest and in the public interest. to cut ties with BP.”