Mark Ruffalo among names calling for British Museum to drop BP sponsorship
Artists, scientists and politicians sign letter to Guardian calling on museum to end ‘out of touch’ partnership with oil firm
Photograph: Niklas Halle’N/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Brown Arts correspondent
Almost 100 prominent figures from the arts, science and politics are calling on the new director of the British Museum to drop BP as a commercial sponsor.
In a letter to the Guardian, the museum is urged to abandon the “completely out of touch” partnership.
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The intervention is backed by actors Emma Thompson, Mark Ruffalo and Mark Rylance, writers Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein and Caryl Churchill, as well as the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and physicist Sir Tom Kibble.
It comes shortly after BP announced it was ending its 26-year relationship with the Tate art gallery, blaming the “challenging business environment”. Anti-oil sponsorship groups claimed that move as a campaign victory, and have since turned their attention to the company’s remaining cultural ties.
The focus has switched to other beneficiaries of BP money: the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and particularly the British Museum, where in December 2011 the four museum directors gathered to announce a five-year sponsorship deal worth £10m.
All four institutions have vigorously defended BP’s involvement in the arts. The former British Museum director Neil MacGregor described BP as the museum’s best corporate friend. “What would you want companies to do with their profits?” he asked. “Do you want them to spend them in a way that benefits the public or not?”
But Jess Worth of the campaign group Art Not Oil, which organised the letter, said signing up to a new deal would damage the reputation of the museum, especially since our understanding of climate change was evolving, with the need to “move away very, very fast” from fossil fuel companies.
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“If the museum is locked into this deal with BP beyond 2020 it is going to look completely on the wrong side of history and completely out of touch. The world has changed and the museum has to change with it.”
The letter is timed to coincide with the arrival of the British Museum’s new German director, Hartwig Fischer, formerly director of the Dresden State Art Collections.
The letter says: “As the impacts of climate change are being felt more forcefully around the world, it is vital that prominent public institutions like the British Museum play their part in minimising the environmental impacts of their activities.”
Other signatories include the screenwriter John Collee, fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, Bianca Jagger and Prof Dame Anne Glover, former chief scientific adviser to the European commission.
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The letter is timed to coincide with the arrival of the British Museum’s new director, Hartwig Fischer, above. Photograph: Alamy
Glover said: “The British Museum is a powerful symbol of our culture and celebrates the complexity of our heritage and development. The museum exerts clear influence in our society and as well as preserving our past, the museum can also make a statement about safeguarding our future by addressing man-made climate change. I hope the museum will choose its partners well to reflect this.”
Emma Thompson said: “I find it unbelievable that the British Museum is promoting a company that’s not just extracting disastrous amounts of fossil fuels but is actively lobbying against clean energy alternatives. BP is sponsoring our past while destroying our future. We hope Dr Fischer will put an end to this.”
The letter also coincides with a protest carried out on Sunday in the British Museum’s Great Court.
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The group BP or Not BP staged a “History of BP in 10 Objects” exhibition, mirroring MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects series on the BBC.
The protest objects on show included crude oil from the Louisiana coastline after the BP Deepwater Horizon spill and a photograph of Colombian trade unionist Gilberto Torres, who is suing BP alleging it was complicit in his kidnap and torture. BP have previously denied any involvement with, or knowledge of, Torres’s abduction.
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Arts organisations have staunchly defended accepting money from BP and argue it is not easily replaceable.
BP, meanwhile, is proud of its arts sponsorship, calling its sponsorship of the four big national arts organisations “one of the most significant long-term corporate investments in UK arts and culture”.
On the back page of the programme for the National Theatre’s production of Les Blancs, which opened this week, is a full-page BP advertisement in which it boasts of its arts sponsorship.
A British Museum spokesperson said: “BP is one of the British Museum’s most longstanding corporate partners, supporting the museum since 1996. The British Museum is exceptionally grateful to BP for their loyal and ongoing support, which has allowed the museum to bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely popular exhibitions and their associated public programmes.
“We believe it is more important than ever to deepen people’s understanding of the world’s many and varied cultures and this is something that can be achieved through the temporary exhibition format. It is only possible to develop and host temporary exhibitions with this kind of external support.
“We are grateful to BP for their long-term commitment, sharing the vision that our artistic programmes should be made available to the widest possible audience. Discussions regarding the renewal of the partnership are continuing.”
Campaigners are launching a petition on Monday calling on Fischer to drop BP.