Documents published last week by Culture Unstained show the British Museum is exploring extending its extremely unpopular partnership with BP. It seems that a decade of protest, and the example of several other museums cutting ties with the company, hasn’t changed anything — the museum is still performing gratitude to the oil giant for its generosity. There are so many things about the British Museum to criticize, but its complicity in BP’s artwashing ranks alongside the museum’s continual refusal to engage with its own colonial history and its total rejection of any requests for the repatriation of looted objects held in its collection. It’s these issues, and the connections between them, that are most significant — two high-profile movements that challenge the way we engage with the British Museum and have consequences that can be felt beyond its walls.
There is, broadly, a disconnect between these movements. There are plenty of organizers who move between both spaces, but the public coverage and popular response tends to separate them. Talking about BP leads to the allegation that you’re ignoring the colonialist violence of the museum itself, while focusing on restitution is read as though you’re not thinking about the environmental impact of oil companies.
Even as anti-colonial consciousness grows and there is a greater public awareness and involvement in campaigns for restitution, there’s a tendency to not see the modernity of this fight. It’s still bleakly common, even among people who are engaged with these conversations, to see the act of colonialism as an element of the past, and its consequences in the present, but not to consider the ways that colonial exploitation is still active. The language used by museums, the way imperialism is neatly sectioned off into history, the way institutions work to perpetuate the myth that these communities have simply faded passively away, the euphemisms around acquisitions, add to the impression that the actual moment of violence is over. We’re talking about the systematic displacement of communities from their homes, the destruction of cultural landscapes in the pursuit of profit, and the abuse of marginalized laborers to produce wealth in the cultural West. How can this be anything other than a continuation of colonialism?
There is an incredible opportunity here for collaborations that can lead to real and meaningful change. In my own experience, it works both ways: People involved in climate justice campaigns are open to learning about the exclusionary history of these spaces, just as those who explore the racism and violence at a museum’s heart are able to consider modern forms of injustice and inequality.
The trick, if you like, of museums is to collapse time, to shrink history and geography until we can see all things at once. This same compression can be an opportunity. The flattened structure of a museum works to create comparisons, and we can use those in building solidarity. The best tool at our disposal is context: showing the repetitions of history and exploring the parallels between the imperialist exploitation of people and extraction of resources and wealth, and the neo-colonial violence with which corporations carelessly destroy our environment in pursuit of profit.
So how do we pull these threads together? Climate crisis disproportionately affects those who are already marginalized racially and economically, and it is crucial to keep in mind how that marginalization was created in the first place. The organization BP or Not BP has consistently worked to highlight the essentially neo-colonial nature of oil companies, and platform the voices of campaigners for restitution with their “Stolen Goods” tours, and interventions that contrast the BP-funded Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum with the damage done by BP drilling into the petroglyphs at Murujuga on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia. The Stop Adani movement in Australia has also walked this line effectively so far. The Adani coal mines would devastate Wangan and Jagalingou lands, and displace communities in Godda to build power stations — an environmental issue that keeps the people most directly harmed at its center. And Members of the Indigenous communities impacted by these mines have led the campaign against Adani’s controversial sponsorship of the Science Museum’s “Green Energy Gallery,” emphasizing that this is cultural as well as environmental destruction.
For historians and educators, there’s also a responsibility to address the deeper history of artwashing. The wealthy individuals who influenced the British Museum’s collections and curatorial narratives in the 19th century have their parallels in the sketchy Chairman’s Advisory Group, a group of anonymous representatives from massive corporations who have an unofficial role in steering the museum’s decisions today. Museums under capitalism can’t be completely divorced from these financial influences, but they can at least be transparent about them, and they have to expect that they’ll face scrutiny for them.
Pulling these threads together is crucial. A change in sponsorship without the restitution of stolen objects would be inadequate, just as engaging in anticolonial work without considering modern forms of destruction and marginalization is meaningless. We need both, together. The museum is not a space of equality — it’s governed by uneven power and shaped by privilege, not a reflection of the world around it; nor is it an institution that consistently serves the public. This inequality is obvious to anyone kept away from their own cultural heritage by its cabinets. For those who don’t personally experience the museum’s inequality, or don’t see it as immediately affecting them, being able to point to these concrete examples of deception and complicity can help us bridge the gap. The energy and creativity of climate justice protests combined with the rigor and determination of anticolonial movements is formidable. With solidarity and effort, it could be transformative.
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