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Damning new report reveals BP’s interference in museums

Today, the Art Not Oil coalition has published an in-depth report drawing upon hundreds of emails and documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, which exposes the multiple ways in which BP has interfered in the running of the museums and galleries it sponsors. The revelations include BP colluding with senior institution staff over security procedures, being given influence over curatorial content, and a troubling email from the British Museum asking that a VIP list that includes BP be deleted ‘as soon as it is no longer required’.

Art Not Oil perform in the British Museum in 2015. Photo by Natasha Quarmby.

The report gives concrete evidence of where institutions including the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate and Science Museum have compromised on their stated values and independence in order to meet BP’s demands. It will be formally submitted to the Museums Association, who will investigate whether its official Code of Ethics for Museums has been breached.

The British Museum and National Portrait Gallery are both currently considering whether to renew their sponsorship deals with BP. Tate’s partnership with the oil giant will end in 2017, following intense pressure from artists and campaigners.

On Saturday, the Guardian previewed four emails from the fifty-three documents cited in the report. All the institutions in the spotlight were quick to respond, with BP claiming that one email represented ‘nothing more than a discussion between partners’, and that the company ‘never seeks curatorial influence’ and provides ‘nothing more than funding.’ BP took a similar line at its recent AGM, where the company’s Chief Executive Bob Dudley insisted its funding comes with ‘no strings attached’ and that BP would never sponsor an exhibition in order to ‘curry favour’.

The damning evidence in tomorrow’s report appears to contradict these claims. Some of the most troubling examples of BP’s influence include:

1) BP providing additional money to the British Museum on top of its five-year sponsorship deal in order to fund a Mexico-themed “Days of the Dead” festival in collaboration with the Mexican Embassy, just as the company was bidding for lucrative oil leases in Mexico. The event allowed BP privileged access to Mexican government officials, specifically at a VIP reception event, with one email showing the museum’s Events Manager asking the Mexican Embassy to delete the invitation list for the event ‘as soon as it is no longer required’. The report asks: was it a coincidence that the museum decided to hold a Mexico-themed event at the very moment when it would be of maximum geopolitical benefit to BP?

2) Emails show BP being offered input into curatorial decision-making at the British Museum’s Indigenous Australia exhibition and the National Portrait Gallery’s BP Portrait Award. An anonymous British Museum staff member – speaking exclusively for this report – explains how certain events are held “at the whim of a funder” and how BP’s behaviour is 'extremely demanding' and 'bullying'.

3) Gaps and contradictions in the materials disclosed raise questions about the institutions’ compliance with the FOI Act with regard to their communications with BP. Internal reviews undertaken at the National Portrait Gallery and Science Museum already reveal errors were made during searches for material as part of FOI requests.

4) The independence of the security procedures at sponsored institutions is called into question. Emails show that senior staff from BP’s “cultural partners” attended a collaborative security meeting at BP’s offices on measures for addressing protest, with many then attending a counter-terrorism training hosted by BP and the Metropolitan Police just nine days later.

5) Sponsoring events at the British Museum, Science Museum and other venues gives BP privileged access to UK politicians and policymakers. BP and the Science Museum even worked together on “advocacy plans” for the 2015 General Election. This raises serious questions about whether cultural institutions are complicit in promoting an oil company’s political agenda.

The full report - which contains many more examples - can be downloaded here.

A spokesperson for the PCS Union - which represents 5,000 museum and gallery workers, and whose opposition to oil sponsorship is raised as a concern in emails between BP and the National Portrait Gallery – said:

'It’s deeply troubling that BP either do have, or feel they have, so much influence. Staff, who are often low paid, have a legal and human right to join a trade union. It's bad enough when that's called into question by an employer, it's sinister when it's questioned by a corporate sponsor.'

Chris Garrard, the report’s lead author, said:

‘BP CEO Bob Dudley claims its arts money comes with “no strings attached”, but it’s clear from the evidence we’ve unearthed that when BP says “jump”, museums ask – “how high?” The thought of BP using publicly-funded museums to curry favour with oppressive regimes and extract oil that we can’t afford to burn should appal anyone who cares about the cultural sector. In order to restore the public’s trust, these institutions must follow Tate’s lead and split with BP.’

An anonymous British Museum staff member, speaking exclusively for this report, said:

‘It is generally known that of all the corporate funders, BP is the most unpleasant to deal with. They are extremely demanding of the Museum – bullying, I would say.’

Cherri Foytlin, a resident of the Gulf Coast, said:

‘Since 2010, there are a lot more graves in the Gulf of Mexico than there were before, and that’s just the truth. So anytime we see arts organisations take on BP as a sponsor, we want to make sure those institutions understand that they are sponsoring death. They are sponsoring death in our communities.’

Tate is also facing pressure to reveal further details of its BP funding. It is due to appear at the Information Tribunal on May 11th, where arts group Platform (with Leigh Day, Monckton Chambers, and Request Initiative) are appealing against the gallery's refusal to disclose the amount of funding it received from BP between 2007 and 2011.