Internal Documents Show How BP Oiled the Wheels at UK Museums

Performers from the Art Not Oil coalition call for an end to BP sponsorship at the British Museum last September (photo by Anna Branthwaite, all courtesy Art Not Oil)
Performers from the Art Not Oil coalition calling for an end to BP sponsorship at the British Museum last September (photo by Anna Branthwaite, all image courtesy Art Not Oil)

After sharing a handful of emails detailing suspicious correspondence between British museums and their sponsor BP, the Art Not Oil Coalition has released the full set of documents it obtained, accompanied by a 40-page report describing the potentially unethical partnerships. The emails and memos, acquired through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests over an 18-month period, suggest multiple instances in which BP exerted control over museums’ curatorial decision making and took advantage of their resources and international networks to further the company agenda. The documents come largely from the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Science Museum, and Tate — which will terminate its BP sponsorship next year — but also under scrutiny are the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the British government’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS).

BP or Not BP? stage a performance at the British Museum (photo by Hugh Warwick) (click to enlarge)
BP or Not BP? staging a performance at the British Museum (photo by Hugh Warwick) (click to enlarge)

“Our report raises not just one or two questions but a whole series of concerns that need to be addressed by the various institutions,” Art Not Oil’s Chris Garrard, who primarily led and compiled the research, told Hyperallergic. “If they do not provide satisfactory explanations, it will seriously undermine the public’s trust in them.”

Much of the information in the internal documents is redacted — and Garrard’s report also discusses difficulties in obtaining the material and how institutions may still be withholding information illicitly — but what remains hints that BP’s sponsorship deals do violate sections of the Museums Association’s code of ethics. The oil giant appears to have substantial sway over the cultural institutions, while providing just a small amount of funds to each one: its contributions in 2013 amount to less than 1% of that year’s total individual incomes for the British Museum, Royal Opera House, and Tate. According to Art Not Oil, the money the British Museum receives from BP is equivalent to the profit the company makes every two hours.

BP’s apparent influence on exhibition content emerges in emails leading up to last year’s opening of a show it sponsored at the British Museum, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. Some correspondence released last week shows that BP apparently had final word on the inclusion of a commissioned work by painters from the indigenous Australian Spinifex group. According to Art Not Oil, most of the Aboriginal communities consulted during the planning phase did not know of BP’s involvement, which overlapped with the company’s contentious fight to drill in the Great Australian Bight.

The exhibition’s primary goal was also seemingly to “promote the ongoing partnership between the British Museum & BP,” as reads the first bullet point on a “Marketing objectives” slide in a presentation created by and for museum staff prior to the show. This intent is echoed in action notes from an Indigenous Australia meeting at BP’s London office last April; they recount that some of the art for the exhibition panels was to be sent to “[redacted] for BP brand approval.” In another email, a museum employee provided a thorough rundown of curator Gaye Sculthorpe’s academic and professional background to someone at BP, in order to show “why she is the perfect choice for curating this exhibition.

“It was a very careful choice and I hope you will agree there could not be a better person with her background,” the email reads.

In response to Art Not Oil’s claims, the British Museum reportedly told the coalition, “Corporate sponsors of the British Museum do not have any influence over the content of our exhibitions.”

Participants during last Noevmber's Deadline Festival call on Tate to drop BP (photo by Platform/Martin LeSanto-Smith)
Participants during last November’s Deadline Festival calling on Tate to drop BP (photo by Martin LeSanto-Smith/Platform)

Many of the documents also relate to the anti–BP sponsorship protests the museums have witnessed in recent years — mostly organized by Art Not Oil’s affiliate groups BP or not BP? and Liberate Tate. They suggest that BP has not only repeatedly discussed protest activity with institution staff but also attempted to shape internal security protocol. The same action notes from the British Museum and BP’s April meeting, for instance, confirm the possibility of demonstrations during Indigenous Australia‘s run. BP or not BP? did stage an unsanctioned performance three weeks after the opening.

The British Museum denied speaking with its corporate funder about such matters, telling Art Not Oil, “There are no records of any communications having taken place between the Museum and BP on potential actions.”

Such sharing of protest information apparently occurred between BP and its other cultural partners as well: Emails to the Tate show that BP reached out the day before a 300-person company event at the museum last January to inquire if the institution “had any intel” related to “protest threat”; someone at the museum responded that “Suitable resources will be in place.” Last March, another concerned email from BP notified a Tate contact about Art Not Oil’s intention to create an oil spill on the gallery’s steps, linking directly to the Facebook event page; Art Not Oil’s report notes that that demonstration “had a significant and disproportionate police presence throughout.” The Science Museum, too, met with BP in September to discuss “recent protest activity at other museums and the potential for protest activity at the Science Museum during the launch event” of its BP-sponsored Cosmonauts exhibition. Most recently, a BP employee sent a tip to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in February, alerting staff to a forthcoming action by a BP or not BP? branch to protest the gallery’s ties with the oil company.

Liberate Tate's "Human Cost'," performed in Tate Britain on the first anniversary of BP's Deepwater Horizon spill in April 2011 (photo by Amy Scaife)
Liberate Tate’s “Human Cost,” performed in Tate Britain on the first anniversary of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in April 2011 (photo by Amy Scaife)
Liberate Tate's "Parts Per Million" performance in Tate Britain in November 2013 (photo by Liberate Tate)
Liberate Tate’s “Parts Per Million” performance in Tate Britain in November 2013 (photo by Liberate Tate)

The shared documents also reveal that the oil giant attempted to standardize security policies at its partner institutions, anticipating a year of anti-BP rallies. In early February, the company sent an email flagged as highly important to a number of museums; it reads, “Dear all — we have had an indication that there will be increased activist action around the BP arts & culture programme in 2015,” and requests that security representatives from the cultural institutions meet with the BP security team. FOI request responses to Art Not Oil confirm that officers from the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate, and Science Museum Group attended the meeting at BP’s London office. Nine days later, museum personnel underwent a three-hour counterterrorism training session there, apparently necessary “in these times of heightened security,” as per a BP email. Titled “Project ARGUS,” it was coordinated by BP’s group security advisor, run by the National Counter Terrorism Security Office and Metropolitan Police Service, and described in a flyer as:

[A] multimedia, interactive counter-terrorism tabletop exercise designed to put you and your business in the midst of a simulated terrorist attack. The exercise aims to increase awareness of counter terrorism issues and help make us more resilient as a community. Attendees will be faced with a series of questions and dilemmas to resolve, both individually and collectively.

Personnel from Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Science Museum were confirmed in attendance; the British Museum denied, in an email to Art Not Oil, that members of its security department attended any training or briefing sessions “hosted, led, or organized by BP between 2012 and 2015.” Art Not Oil argues that such coordinated efforts were attempts to limit protestors’ freedom of expression.

What’s more, BP asked its partner institutions to look into their staff members’ possible affiliation with the trade union PCS, in an email linking to the union’s vote to condemn oil sponsorship of the arts.

I believe the PCS Union does represent some gallery employees,” a National Portrait Gallery staffer responded to BP in an email. “I have shared this information with a wider group of colleagues so that we can be prepared and ready for any potential impacts.”

Besides potential collusion with museum employees on security procedures, BP appears to have cultivated close relationships with senior institution staff to maintain its influence. Emails show members of the oil company inviting Tate officials to a performance of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House, former British Museum Director Neil MacGregor to Rigoletto, and National Portrait Gallery employees to the studio of a “leading British photographer.” The studio visit invitation was also extended to “the Boster Group BP team, and representatives of BP’s other cultural partners.” The Boster Group is an independent consultancy that aims to strengthen partnerships between corporations and cultural brands — or, in Art Not Oil’s words, “helps to sustain BP’s dominant position in the arts and culture sector.”

A British Museum–prepared briefing document related to the Indigenous Australia exhibition further suggests the length to which the institution would go to protect its funder. A list of anticipated press inquiries shows that the museum helped BP deflect questions related to the company’s threats to the environment, from the broad — “Isn’t BP using arts sponsorship to soften up its image?” — to the highly specific — “Why does the BM continue to use BP as a sponsor? Surely it is unethical for an oil company to sponsor the arts? How do you justify taking money from an organization that has caused an environmental and social disaster of his magnitude?”

BP protestors outside the British Museum last year (photo by Natasha Quarmby)
BP protestors outside the British Museum last year (photo by Natasha Quarmby)

Art Not Oil accuses BP of taking advantage of these alliances with museums for its own public relations strategies, at times using the spaces for ritzy VIP events to ingratiate itself to government officials from countries where it has business interests. Last October, the British Museum hosted a celebration of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, sponsored by the oil firm. BP had previously supported a similar festival in 2009, but plans for this one coincided with its vying for oil drilling leases in Mexico; in attendance were the ambassador of Mexico and members of the Mexican government. Another email reveals the museum’s events manager requesting that the Mexican Embassy delete the invitation list for the night “as soon as it is no longer required.” Funding for the event, the museum confirmed to Art Not Oil, came from BP in addition to what gives in its five-year sponsorship deal.

“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the project is due to the whim of a funder, we have to deliver it, and that we don’t have a choice in the matter,” a British museum staff member reportedly told Art Not Oil, on condition of anonymity.

Similarly, emails between BP and the Science Museum suggest the oil company was attempting to use the Cosmonauts exhibition to curry favor with officials in Russia, where BP has a 19.75% stake in the mostly state-owned oil company Rosneft. The correspondence shows BP employees attempting to push the show’s announcement date to late May instead of earlier in the month, as the museum would “struggle to engage senior officials then, and the following week our senior Russia team are not in the country,” one message reads. The museum announced the show on May 21, although an email does state that the determining factor was cosmonaut Alexey Leonov agreeing to speak at the press launch that day.

Genuine oil from the US Gulf Coast following BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, included in the "History of BP in 10 Objects" guerrilla exhibition, staged in April at the British Museum (photo by Diana More)
Genuine oil from the US Gulf Coast following BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, included in the ‘History of BP in 10 Objects’ guerrilla exhibition, staged in April at the British Museum (photo by Diana More)

Art Not Oil intends to formally submit its report and relevant documents to the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee, which will investigate the claims and determine whether the museums have breached its ethics code. Hyperallergic has reached out to the Museums Association about possible implications but has not received a response.

This year, BP’s five-year sponsorship deals with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and Tate will expire. The former three are still negotiating the possibility of future partnerships with BP. The deals, all renewed in December 2011, were seen by many at the time as BP’s solution to help clean up its reputation after the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley has stated that his company’s partnerships have “no strings attached,” but these released documents suggest that the public’s longtime concerns are founded, while breeding further and even more worrying ones.

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