Last month, British Museum chair George Osbourne announced in a speech at the annual trustees dinner that the museum would “no longer [be] a destination for climate protest but instead an example of climate solution” in its plan to become “net zero carbon.” The London institution’s so-called Rosetta Project, has an estimated cost of £1 billion (~$1.2B) to address multiple energy and structural inefficiencies in the 170-year-old building.
But climate activists are wondering how the museum will achieve these goals while continuing to receive funding from oil giant British Petroleum (BP), with whom a five-year sponsorship contract is set to renew this February.
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The museum has been subjected to multiple protests and demonstrations this year, primarily targeting its ongoing financial relationship with BP as several other British arts institutions have recently opted to part ways. BP, with its most recent contributions going toward the Hieroglyphs: Uncovering Ancient Egypt exhibition, has sponsored the British Museum for over 25 years.
Last October, the climate emergency group Culture Unstained published an open letter to the museum calling for its divestment from BP’s funding ahead of the Hieroglyphs exhibition’s public debut, citing the oil firm’s supportive relationship with autocratic Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, whose government has detained over 60,000 political prisoners in atrocious conditions.
The group had released a series of documents obtained through a Freedom of Inquiry (FOI) request early in the year indicating that the museum director, Hertwig Fischer, was posturing to renew the five-year sponsorship contract with BP as of mid-2021. However, Culture Unstained recently reported that while the museum insists that no further renewal discussions have taken place since October 2021, it had yet to complete a due diligence report on the reputation risks of renewing the BP deal as of last July.
With hardly two months left for the current contract, a British Museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that it “does not comment on commercially sensitive matters” in regards to the decision to renew or opt out.
“As a major UK visitor attraction we are conscious of the impact of our activity on the environment,” the spokesperson said. The Rosetta Project involves a massive overhaul of the museum’s outdated electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems to ostensibly improve environmental sustainability, and also aims to repoen the circular Reading Room that’s been closed to the public since 2017. The timeline for the renovation has not been released yet.
The museum declined to comment on whether BP was involved in funding any part of the Rosetta Project. It did, however, dig its heels in on its months-old statement about institutional sponsorships: “Museums today have a mixed funding model and we need corporate and private money to fulfill our public mission.”
The lack of clarity regarding the museum’s decision is frustrating considering the previous renewal was announced 18 months in advance. “A better future must be a future without BP,” Culture Unstained reiterated in their scathing December report. “Will the Museum now make a stand and side with the people, not a major polluter?”