The future for the British Museum could indeed be very different. That was the message from the organisation’s chairman, George Osborne, in his annual address to Trustees last month, announcing a “complete re-imagination” of the museum, under a billion-pound master plan to be unveiled next year.
Among the hints of possible lending of his exhibits, which led to further speculation about the Parthenon marbles, was an explicit promise about energy. “Our goal is to be a net zero-carbon museum,” said Osborne, “no longer a destination for climate protests, but instead an example of a climate solution.”
However, if that is the future, it is not here yet. On Sunday, the Grand Court of the museum was once again the scene of a protest by climate campaigners, the latest in a long line of actions calling for the institution to drop its old sponsor BP. Group activists BP or not BP? chanted and held up banners reading “Drop BP”.
“This must be the last BP-sponsored exhibition at the British Museum,” said Lydia, a spokesman for the group. “I am participating in this campaign because there is no place for fossil fuels in our art and culture sector. The British Museum must drop BP now.”
How, then, should Osborne’s comments be interpreted? Would the BM finally be ready to ditch BP? To be sure, the museum has been unusually quiet about the future of the partnership. The energy giant has been a leading sponsor since 1996, with its most recent five-year agreement extended by a year due to Covid.
That deal was announced more than a year in advance. But with two months to go until the existing contract expires at the end of the BP-sponsored hieroglyphics exhibition in February – which was particularly controversial given BP’s work in Egypt – neither side has commented on whether the partnership will be continued.
A lot has changed in the art world since that deal was struck in 2016. After the Tate Gallery 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 cut all ties with BP amid growing backlash from visitors to the sponsorship of art by fossil fuel companies.
Despite this, there were indications that the museum was planning to extend the collaboration, according to documents obtained under freedom of information law by campaign group Culture Unstained. However, further responses indicated that the discussions may have fizzled out.
Chris Garrard, the organization’s co-director, said he was optimistic these revelations, and the unusual silence so far, meant the deal would not be renewed. “I really hope the director takes the opportunity to show some leadership and completely end the relationship with BP.”
However, given the scope of Osborne’s master plan, he said he is concerned that rather than cut ties, the museum could seek BP funding for projects outside of the highly visible exhibits. But, Garrard said, “it would be huge if you started a new relationship with BP after saying you want to be a net zero carbon museum. Because [that] would be such a blatant contradiction”.
In a statement, the museum said it would not comment on commercially sensitive matters, but that “business support is essential for museums and art organizations in times of reduced funding.
“As a major UK visitor attraction, we are aware of the impact of our activities on the environment. We are committed to reducing that impact in all aspects of the museum’s operation, from energy consumption to waste management, from new buildings to exhibitions. We expect our partners and contractors to support us in this.
“As the museum begins to develop its master plan, it is clear to us that environmental sustainability will be a strategic priority.”
BP did not respond to a request for comment.
Rodney Harrison, professor of heritage studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, said the museum’s relationship with BP “is now very out of step with the [arts] sector”.
“BP is and will continue to be involved in projects that have a devastating impact on cultural heritage worldwide. Archaeologists, educators, heritage professionals and climate scientists – as well as its own staff – have for years been calling on the director and trustees of the British Museum to reconsider their relationship with BP.
“Given the museum’s goal to act for the preservation of the world’s cultures, and the current funding period is about to expire, this would be the right time for the museum to act in their own interest and the public interest to sever ties with BP. ”