In an open letter published on Wednesday, dozens of academics and museum workers denounced London’s British Museum for its continued financial arrangement with the oil company BP, claiming that the sponsorship is ill-suited to a world facing the threat of climate change. The letter comes as the institution’s deal with BP is set to expire, leaving open the question of whether the British Museum will renew it.
“Refusing further sponsorship from BP would send a strong signal that fossil fuel corporations—like tobacco and arms companies—are no longer welcome in cultural life,” the letter reads. “By diminishing BP’s ‘social license to operate’, it would help to support our society’s transition away from fossil fuels.”
Calling the BP sponsorship a “strategy of reputational management for the oil company,” the academics also wrote, “Rapid transition away from fossil fuels is crucial if we are to avoid the worst outcomes of the climate crisis over the coming century.”
“Without external support much programming and other major projects would not happen,” the British Museum said in a statement. “The British Museum is grateful to all those who support its work in times of reduced funding.”
The British Museum’s BP sponsorship has been a perennial source of contention among artists, curators, archaeologists, and activists, with groups like BP or Not BP? leading a stream of protests at the museum over the past few years. In 2020, BP or Not BP? brought a Trojan Horse to the British Museum as a protest against an exhibition about Troy that had received funding from the oil giant.
After that protest, members of the PCS union, which represents workers at the institution, and a former trustee, Ahdaf Soueif, joined the call for the British Museum to cut ties with BP. Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s director, said at the time that the British Museum needed the funding to continue mounting its offerings, and that ending the sponsorship was “not a contribution to solving the climate crisis.”
Wednesday’s letter was started by Natasha Reynolds, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France. Among its signatories are Nadia Maria Kristensen, a curator at the National Museum of Denmark, and Jody Joy, a curator at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and a former British Museum curator.
The British Museum is not the only U.K. institution to have faced controversy for receiving money from oil companies. In 2016, the Tate museum network said it would no longer receive funding from BP, putting an end to its 26-year relationship, and in 2020, the Southbank Centre, a London arts complex that includes the Hayward Gallery, cut ties with Shell.
Update, 11/11/21, 10 a.m.: A statement from the British Museum has been added to this article.