BY Frieze News Desk in News | 19 JUL 19

British Museum Staffers Criticise ‘Troubling’ BP Sponsorship; Defend Trustee Who Quit In Protest

Staff members have written in support of Ahdaf Soueif, the trustee who resigned over oil money, restitution silence and employment precarity

BY Frieze News Desk in News | 19 JUL 19

Anti-BP Protest, British Museum, 2016. Courtesy: Getty Images/AFP; photograph: Justin Tallis

The British Museum chapter of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union Culture Group has issued a statement in defence of Ahdaf Soueif, the trustee who resigned from the London institution over its acceptance of BP sponsorship, perceived silence over restitution and alleged precarious employment practices. The PCS statement argues that the museum’s collection ‘is being used to greenwash the activities of a company whose actions threaten lives the world over’, and alleges that ‘BP is allowed to propagate the myth that, without its existence, we would not have access to the collections of our publicly funded museums and galleries.’

One British Museum staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, told frieze: ‘Given the impending climate catastrophe, and as an institution devoted to celebrating human culture, supporting the actions of a corporation which is making the planet uninhabitable is entirely inappropriate.’ They continued: ‘That a trustee feels her best course of action is to resign shows a worrying inability of the remaining leadership to listen and grasp the severity of the most important issue facing humanity today.’

The PCS Union Culture Group represents 4,000 workers across the museum and heritage sector in the UK – of which it represents around 200 at the British Museum. It is part of the Art Not Oil Coalition, which campaigns against oil sponsorship in UK arts institutions.

Soueif, a novelist and commentator, quit her position on the British Museum’s board of trustees last week. Writing in the London Review of Books blog, she drew attention to the institution’s continued reliance on BP sponsorship, arguing: ‘The public relations value that the museum gives to BP is unique, but the sum of money BP gives the museum is not unattainable elsewhere.’ Soueif alleged that the museum had failed to take an ethical position on issues of restitution: ‘The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny. And yet it hardly speaks.’ Soueif also criticized the museum’s employment policies for allegedly pushing workers into ‘economic precarity’.

In their statement ‘in solidarity’ with Soueif, the British Museum branch of the PCS Union Culture Group argued that the museum’s ‘troubling’ association with BP was inappropriate, saying ‘culture is a human right, not a privilege bestowed by large corporations’. The statement also demanded that the museum ‘take a clear position as an ally of coming generations’ on issues of reconciling ‘with our colonial past’, and thanked Soueif for calling attention to the precarious positions of outsourced workers.

Responding to the PCS statement, Richard Lambert, the chairman of the museum’s trustees, said in comments emailed to frieze: ‘BP has made it possible for us to put on exhibitions and programming that four million people have seen. We couldn’t have done this without that support […] The British Museum is playing a very important part in the [restitution] debate. The Museum’s director Hartwig Fischer has recently visited Benin City, Ghana and Sudan as well as having regular engagement with museum directors in Berlin and Paris.’

Recent months have seen increased pressure on UK arts institutions to break their links to oil sponsorship. Last month, actor Mark Rylance quit the Royal Shakespeare Company over its deal with BP. And earlier in July, 80 artists demanded London’s National Portrait Gallery put an end to its BP sponsorship contract.

Chris Garrard, co-director of the advocacy group Culture Unstained – another coalition member of Art Not Oil – told frieze: ‘We should be deeply concerned that the backing of those heading up a taxpayer-funded museum can be so easily secured in the service of one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies during a climate emergency’.