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Maria Balshaw’s comments coincide with a creative protest against the ongoing sponsorship over the weekend resulting in the museum refusing entry to visitors.

Children's activities taking place at the protest on Saturday
Photo: 

Ron Fassbender

Tate Director Maria Balshaw has spoken out about the British Museum’s ongoing sponsorships from oil giant BP.

Balshaw, who has been Director of the Tate since 2017, one year after the institution announced cutting its ties with BP, covers the sponsorship in her new book, Gathering of Strangers: Why Museums Matter. Speaking to The Observer over the weekend, she said the issue the British Museum faces is that the public has moved to a position where they think taking BP’s money is “inappropriate”.

She added that the British Museum’s incoming Director, Nicholas Cullinan, “is going to have to deal with a lot of public dismay”.

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“There’s a dissonance between wishing to be seen as extremely sensitive in the way we relate to other cultures and careful about the resources we consume, and then taking money from a company that has not yet demonstrated whether it’s really committed to changing,” Balshaw said.

In June 2023, a freedom of information request revealed the British Museum had no exhibitions or other activities sponsored by BP for the first time in 27 years. However, the museum then signed a new 10-year deal, worth £50m with the oil giant in December 2023 to fund a major redevelopment project.

Chris Garrard, co-Director of Culture Unstained, told Arts Professional that to see Balshaw speak out in this way “is a sign of just how far the sector has shifted”.

“When BP's oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico back in 2010, Tate's then Director Nick Serota cynically defended his sponsor, saying you ‘don't abandon your friends because they have a temporary difficulty’. Now it's the British Museum that has misread the public mood, embracing a major polluter recklessly investing in new oil and gas, and profiting from the ongoing genocide in Gaza,” Garrard said.

“Nicholas Cullinan, who is about to take up post as the new Director of the British Museum, must now respond to Balshaw's intervention and oversee the end of BP's artwashing, just as he did at the National Portrait Gallery.”

The National Portrait Gallery cut ties with BP in February 2022, while Cullinan was Director.

Latest action

Activists took over several areas of the British Museum with creative actions on Saturday (1 June), in the latest protest over the museum’s continued BP sponsorship.

Members of activist theatre group BP or not BP? organised the protest alongside groups Energy Embargo for Palestine and Parents for Palestine. 

The actions included the creation of a large mosaic in the main hall with lettering that spelt out ‘Drop BP: End Oil Sponsorship’, children's events and banner-making in the museum’s courtyard and an unofficial walking tour of Palestinian heritage in the museum.

The British Museum shut down in response to the actions and began refusing visitor entry. It is the third time Energy Embargo for Palestine has organised action over the museum’s BP partnership that has led to the museum shutting down, following occasions in February and March this year.

“Today we transformed the museum to a radically alternative space truly committed to learning and solidarity. We can see that the trustees show no interest in taking up this responsibility themselves, attempting to obscure the Museum's ties with Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people,” one activist said. 

“The British public deserves to know the truth - the museum is sponsored by fossil fuel companies profiting from death and destruction. Our message is clear: Drop BP!”

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