Culture | Art, brought to you by BP

British museums dirtied by oil industry ties

On September 13, 200 London activists staged public protests in four British museums against the sponsorship of museums by the oil company British Petroleum (BP). Protesters marched from the Tate Britain to the National Portrait Gallery and Royal Opera House before ending the march at the British Museum. There, they sat on the floor of the Great Court and formed the word “No” with black umbrellas underneath banners reading, “No new BP deal.” In 2011, these four museums accepted a five-year investment from BP totalling £10 million, something protesters do not want to see renewed next year, after the deal’s expiration date.

The London protests against the museums’ acceptance and use of BP money brings to the forefront a matter the museums would like to keep quiet about. According to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, BP’s donation amounted to less than 1 percent of the British Museum’s budget in 2010-11, meaning BP is far from an essential donor to the museum. Out of the £10 million pledged to the four London museums in 2011, the British Museum would only see £2.5 million if split equally. While it would be bad enough if BP was monopolizing budget donations to museums, it’s just as bad, if not worse, that BP is essentially buying PR through museum donations to legitimize its abhorrent social and environmental impact with its insignificant donations.

Sponsorship of the arts has become a key method used by the fossil fuel industry to accentuate its power, as actors in the industry are easily placed on high pedestals of social approval through such cultural institutions as museums. Donations have allowed BP to hide its corporate crimes by purchasing a thin veil of social legitimacy. These oil giants supply less than 1 per cent of the annual income of organizations like the Tate and the British Museum, and yet they receive a large amount of high profile branding in return, allowing them to present themselves as respectable patrons of the necessary pillars of society.

Donations have allowed BP to hide its corporate crimes by purchasing a thin veil of social legitimacy.

The events in London remind us that museums and galleries of all kinds have both the potential to galvanize social change and also the responsibility to do so. Even if BP’s funding contributed significantly to museum budgets, the general social benefit accrued from well-funded public museums would not outweigh the museums’ hypocrisy of accepting that money. For example, just this month, the Tate Modern installed solar panels on its roof. Judith Nesbitt, the museum’s director of national and international programs, commented, “Together with our plans for heat recovery and natural ventilation in the new building, we are exploring a whole range of approaches to reduce energy use.” The Tate Modern cannot conceivably think it can truly reduce energy use and also benefit from the profits of fossil fuels, even marginally.

Social institutions should be deploying social agency and cultural authority in a way that is aligned and consistent with the values of contemporary society. As a medium for mass communication through powerful, perceived cultural authority, museums’ potential as agents of change should not be underestimated. Eilean Hooper Greenhill, a director at the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, brings attention to the socially constructed nature of learning in museums and the dialogue that goes on between the individual and their physical environment. She explains how education is influenced by presentation and the physical setting. Learning in museums operates in rich and complex sites, and in focusing on concrete materials such as objects and exhibitions, is qualitatively superior to learning from other mediums. Museums offer an experience from which visitors then actively construct meaning.

In turn, having oil companies fund museum exhibits sends a message to the public that is too consequential to be ignored: not only does it completely undermine any pro-environmental message from the museum, but the museum itself loses its legitimacy as a social institution when its hypocrisy has broken the public’s trust.

In order to maintain freedom to expose and criticize any aspect of society, including supporting beneficial pro-environmental causes, social institutions themselves have to be free of compromising ties. The British Museum, and any other museum in similar economic contracts, will be further undermining its influence and legitimacy if it renews its deal with BP, because the core of its authority relies on public trust. If the institution itself is corrupt, then the values and principles it advocates inside its walls will lose all significance.