An ethnographic museum is seeking financial support for a major new exhibition which is hoped to revive an ailing institution.
A trustee of the museum has approached a contact in a major oil company whose activities are reported to have led to the degradation of lands belonging to the cultures that the museum seeks to represent.
The company are supportive, and it looks like no other fundraising leads will be able to raise the sums of money required.
However, members of the management fear that going forward with this plan will lead to protests and will undermine the museum’s message. They approach the ethics committee for advice.
Should a museum be sponsored by an oil company? This question has been one of the most high profile ethical dilemmas facing the museum sector in recent years.
While some believe that museums should have nothing to do with companies that cause climate change, damage the environment and allegedly wash their reputations by association with cultural institutions, others believe that museums must work pragmatically with sponsors in order to fulfil their mission, particularly in a period of decreasing public funding.
The Code of Ethics states in para 3.6 that museums should “carefully consider offer of financial support from commercial organisations and other sources in the UK and internationally and seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with those of the museum.
“Exercise due diligence in understanding the ethical standards of commercial partners with a view to maintaining public trust and integrity in all museum activities.”
As such, the museum ought to actively seek out support from organisations whose values chime with those of the museum, rather than those whose values appear at odds with those of the museum.
The museum will also need to conduct thorough and well documented research to demonstrate that they have understood the nature of the company’s business, and any claims made against it.
The museum must also make a judgment about whether the involvement of the oil company is a reputational risk that will damage the museum’s standing with the public.
This judgment might vary depending on how closely the museums activities overlap with those of the company.
In this case, the use of oil company funds to promote an exhibition on a culture that the oil company may be responsible for damaging risks inviting substantial criticism and protest. Even if the institution is struggling financially – is this the best way to revive it?
It is also worth noting that the Code of Ethics does not set out a ‘blacklist’ of companies that museums must not work with, partly because such a list would be impossible to agree upon and maintain on a sector-wide basis. However, some museums do maintain a list of industries that they will not work with for ethical reasons.
It may be useful for the museum in this case to consider whether it also wishes to put certain industries ‘off-limits’, and to establish clear criteria for doing so based on the museum’s values and mission.
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Code of Ethics