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In recent years, as climate change has intensified, so has controversy around fossil fuel funding. Chris Garrard says we must learn from our leading museums’ mistakes.

protestors campaign against Shell's sponsorship of the Science Museum

Ron Fassbender

‘Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s most awe-inspiring ancient stone circle’, is how the British Museum introduces its next major exhibition, The World of Stonehenge. But, like others before it, this exhibition risks becoming as well known for its sponsorship by the oil and gas company BP as it does for the significant objects on display. 

In 2019, the author Ahdaf Soueif resigned from the museum’s board of trustees, in part over its acceptance of BP sponsorship, asking “will the museum be involved in making a world that is habitable, just, interconnected and open for the next generation; or will it continue to collaborate with those who are unmaking the world before our eyes?” 

Meanwhile, the museum continues to face large-scale protests against the partnership, and hundreds of archaeologists and heritage professionals have recently called on it to cut its ties to Big Oil. 

No logo

This mounting pressure seems to have had an impact. BP’s sunflower-shaped logo and prominent naming rights appear to have been quietly dropped from the British Museum exhibitions it sponsors. 

So, what used to be announced with a fanfare as ‘The BP Exhibition’ with the company’s branding prominently displayed is now more discreetly billed as an exhibition ‘supported by BP’, with no logo in sight on the publicity materials and no mention of the sponsor in press coverage and reviews. 

However, even this lower-level crediting of BP as generous philanthropist – rather than a major polluter exploring for new oil and gas – still provides the company with unjustified social legitimacy. Just as the Sackler name was laundered through its chiseling into the walls of iconic galleries, the plaque that welcomes you to the museum’s ‘BP Lecture Theatre’ also forms part of a cynical rebranding effort. 

And while this new exhibition will bring ‘the true story of Stonehenge into sharper focus than ever before’, its association with BP helps to obscure the true story of the company’s climate impacts.

‘A beautiful creative act’

Of course, most cultural organisations operate on a much smaller scale than the British Museum, and very few now partner with fossil fuel companies. 

By 2019 Shell’s partnerships with the Southbank Centre, National Theatre, BFI and National Gallery had all come to an end, while the Royal Shakespeare Company had ended its BP sponsorship deal mid-contract. 

However, many of the ethical funding principles that the British Museum should be leading on apply across the whole cultural sector. And it’s not just that attitudes to fossil fuel sponsorship have changed, it’s that many now regard an organisation’s stance on ethical funding as a powerful expression of its core values. 

As the artist and philosopher Raoul Martinez once expressed it in relation to oil sponsorship, “if our cultural institutions took a principled stand on this urgent issue, it would, in and of itself, be a beautiful creative act, certainly as valuable as any painting or performance they might showcase”.

Trust can be rapidly eroded

In the past, undertaking due diligence checks – the process of getting to ‘know your donor’ and their background before taking their money – was largely seen as a way of mitigating any potential risks to your reputation. Now, many also view that due diligence process as a way of ensuring you accept funding from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with your own, a principle embedded in the Museums Association’s ‘Code of Ethics’ some six years ago.
Museums, and curators in particular, continue to hold a high level of trust in society but that trust can be rapidly eroded when an organisation forges ahead with an ethically mismatched partnership. 

The Science Museum’s decision to sign a new sponsorship deal with the coal-producing conglomerate Adani – on top of its existing partnerships with three major oil companies – is a clear example of this. And the decision to sign a non-disparagement clause with these companies has caused many to question whether the museum’s leadership can now be trusted to act in good faith, particularly when they have invited these companies to sponsor exhibitions covering territory in which they have a dubious and disputed record: climate solutions.

Accountability to stakeholders

As Hannah Fry pointed out when she resigned from the museum’s board of trustees last October, “by allowing such public ties with these companies, I worry that the Science Museum gives the false impression that scientists believe the current efforts of fossil fuel companies are sufficient to avoid disaster”.
But what this controversy has also underscored is the importance of being accountable to key stakeholder groups. Over the preceding months, the museum’s leadership had refused to meaningfully engage with the many scientists and young people raising concerns. 

It was therefore a new low when, on national radio, the Director of the Science Museum also dismissed the concerns of an Indigenous elder who had been targeted by Adani for opposing a new coal mine being constructed on his people’s lands. Representatives of several Indigenous communities wrote to the museum in response, making clear that “to defend Adani’s controversial business operations in this way is completely unacceptable for any publicly funded institution”.

In her article in The Times, Hannah Fry also observed that, “good science is about scrutiny, openness and intellectual humility, not holding firm in the face of opposing views”. I would argue that those same principles should also underlie our approach to art and culture – including the ways in which we seek to fund it.

Need to move beyond lazy thinking

But even now, some will still mischaracterise the debate around ethical funding as being about negatively rejecting any funder that isn’t squeaky clean. They often claim that because no source of funding is ethically pure, we may as well just ‘take the money and run’. 

As well as being at odds with what many sector-wide policies advise, this kind of lazy thinking is a refusal to engage in those more nuanced discussions around ethics that allow us to progress. In fact, it’s often by defining our ‘red lines’ – both as individual organisations and as a sector – that we more clearly articulate who we will work with and what we are for. 

Cultural organisations play a crucial role in shaping the discursive space around issues such as climate change, race and social justice, not just through their public-facing programmes but in how they go about their business too. 

On some level, when we decide who we are prepared to take funding from, we are also deciding how involved we want to be in making a world that is habitable, just, interconnected and open for the next generation.

Chris Garrard is Co-Director of Culture Unstained.


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Photo of Chris Garrard