In Brief

Documents Hint at BP’s Undue Influence on UK Museums It Sponsors

Art Not Oil protesting at the British Museum last year (photo via @jumpingsofa/Instagram)
Art Not Oil protesting at the British Museum last year (photo via @jumpingsofa/Instagram)

A number of major museums in the UK, including the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery, may undergo investigation over claims that oil giant BP had sway over their operations. After obtaining internal documents through the Freedom of Information Act, the Art Not Oil coalition claims that BP “influenced curatorial decision-making, shaped cultural institutions’ security strategies and used museums to further its political interests in the UK and abroad,” as the Guardian, which received the documents, reported.

Emails show that the oil and gas company allegedly had final say over the purchase and inclusion of an artwork by painters from the indigenous Australian Spinifex group in the British Museum exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilization, which coincided with BP’s push last year to drill in the Great Australian Bight. The company, in response, said it “never seeks curatorial influence” and was merely providing funding. Last year, it apparently wanted to place its logo on the cover of a forthcoming National Portrait Gallery book; an email reveals one employee backing off after some back-and-forth with the museum’s director of communications. BP brushed off the incident as “a discussion between partners on how to demonstrate that partnership on a relevant product.”

The company also seems to have pressured both museums to enroll staff in a counterterrorism training program it had organized, as well as requested that a number of arts institutions send it information on whether any employees were part of unions that might oppose oil industry sponsorship of the arts. No documents regarding Tate, which BP will cease sponsoring next year, are specifically mentioned.

“We’ve always known that BP uses sponsorship deals to buy a social legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve,” Chris Garrard, a member of Art Not Oil and the lead author of its report on BP’s influence, told the Guardian. “But now we have specific evidence of where our museums and galleries have been complicit in advancing BP’s business interests and keeping the voices of the company’s critics in check.

“How can we have trust in these institutions when they have repeatedly put BP’s needs before the public good?”

The National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum have denied facing such pressures from the oil company. According to the Guardian, BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley just this month defended his firm’s funding of the arts at an annual general meeting, asserting that the partnerships have “no strings attached.”

The Museums Association, which represents museums and galleries in the UK, may now look into the case, as any claims proven true violate its code of ethics. Article 1.2, for instance, dictates that all who work in and with museums should “ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation. Resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders.”

If Art Not Oil requests further guidance on the situation, the association’s ethics committee will follow up on the claims and contact all parties involved, a policy officer told the Guardian.

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