Ethical sponsorship - Museums Association

Ethical sponsorship

Sponsors’ ethical values should be consistent with those of the museum
Gary Noakes
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Staff at the British Museum in London may have learned to tolerate protests by pressure group, BP or not BP, which wants the museum to drop one of its key sponsors. An area is often set aside for them when the group phone ahead to warn of their arrival.

This the most recent high-profile case of a museum having to weigh up the benefits and disadvantages of corporate partnership. To provide guidance, the Museums Association (MA) has updated the Code of Ethics for the first time since 2002, with members voting to accept the revised code at the MA’s annual conference on 5-6 November.

One of three principles highlighted in the new code is individual and institutional integrity.

The code states that museums and those who work in and with them should “act in the public interest in all areas of work”.

Point 3.6 of the code specifically refers to financial support and sponsorship. It states that museums:

“Carefully consider offers 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.”


“We are trying to give the sector a bit more clarity,” says Alistair Brown, the MA’s policy officer. “On the one hand, there is deep unease about big name corporations improving their public image of the back of museums’ reputations. On the other hand, museums do need the freedom to work with sponsors and commercial partners.”

Corporate sponsors often insist on their branding being included in a title of a gallery or exhibition. For example, Tate Britain’s redisplay of its art collection, which reopened in 2013, is strictly called The BP Walk Through British Art.

Risky business

When it comes to museums accepting money and building relationships with sponsors, the revised Code of Ethics is not prescriptive. It recognises that sponsorship can play a positive role in museums funding, but acknowledges that it also carries risks.

“That’s why it requires museums to fully understand the implications of any sponsorship deal, and to seek out support from sponsors which share a museum’s values,” Brown says.  

One thing that the new code does not include is a “blacklist” of sponsors for museums, although many may have their own bans, such as not working with tobacco companies.

Treading through the ethical minefield of sponsorship is clearly not easy. The main pitfalls, Brown says, are being associated with a brand that invites criticism and in situations when a museum’s message is (knowingly or unknowingly) compromised.

Earlier this year, London’s Science Museum was forced to defend its relationship with sponsor Shell and insist it made no changes to an exhibition about climate change, despite comments made by the oil giant on the programme.

Discussions about the museum’s Atmosphere, Exploring Climate Science permanent exhibition and the extended Climate Changing programme, were revealed by a Freedom of Information request from pressure group BP or not BP?.

The emails reveal Shell’s concerns that the Rubbish Collection exhibition by the artist Joshua Sofaer, which documented waste generated by the museum over 30 days, “creates an opportunity for non-government organisations to talk about some of the issues that concern them around Shell’s operations”.

The oil giant also asked whether a seminar was invitation-only in order to avoid a discussion of the way it did business.

However, the museum said that while curatorial staff had complete control during the four-year partnership, it was normal for a sponsor to make suggestions.

Museum director Ian Blatchford said in a statement: “Having spoken to our curatorial team, I can confirm that not a single change to the curatorial programme resulted from these email exchanges.”

Blatchford also said partnership with corporations such as Shell not only provided much needed funds to the museum but also presented an opportunity to engage with governments, industry and the public.

 “A museum can claim editorial independence, but there is always the potential for self-censorship,” Brown says.

Put another way, there may be a reluctance at the back of the curatorial mind to present an exhibition in a way that they feel sponsors will have issues with.

Earlier this month the Science Museum announced that it was dropping Shell as a sponsor.

Campaigners said they welcomed the news, but called on the museum to also cancel its deal with BP, which is the sponsor for Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age (until 13 March 2016).

Ethical values

BP or not BP agrees that the MA’s Code of Ethics shouldn’t be prescriptive but believes the code could go further on sponsorship.

“It is up to each museum to figure out their own ethics and values,” a spokeswoman for the pressure group says. “One of the tensions that museums face is that they have quite well thought-through sustainable policies like recycling and heating, but somehow this is never incorporated into the choice of sponsor. It needs to be a bit more joined up.”

The MA’s general advice is that museums are clear on their own values and consider whether these are in step with the companies they work with. They should also evaluate the reputational risks of working with certain businesses.

Two good questions to consider are how a partnership looks to an external person and who comes out of the deal better – the museum or the sponsor?

BP or not BP? argues that in the case of the British Museum, the oil company has more to gain than the museum does.

Another campaign group, Platform, also has BP in its sights. A Freedom of Information request at the start of this year found that BP had given Tate on average £224,000 a year between 1990 and 2006.

BP made profits of $12.1bn last year, and Platform says the donation, which it estimates at 0.5% of Tate’s budget, is “embarrassingly small” for Tate to continue the relationship and that Tate “can clearly do without BP”.

BP’s relationship with the British Museum is also under the spotlight ahead of a potential renewal of contract, which is due in 2017. The museum won’t comment on whether a renewal is being negotiated, but it says that the relationship has permitted more than three million people to view exhibitions over the past 19 years. The oil company is also its sole touring exhibitions partner, which has bought shows to regions throughout the UK.

BP’s support in 2012 for Mummy: The Inside Story also meant that the museum was also able to tour an exhibition in India for the first time.

Weighing up the contradictions and risks of sponsorship are essential.

Jane Marriott, the deputy director of the Hepworth Wakefield, warns that reputations are “very difficult to recover” but adds that there has to be an element of practicality.

“Personal views can start to come in rather than that of the organisation as a whole,” she says. “It’s up to the governing body to look at the position, assess the risk and be pragmatic.”

Ethical dilemma
An ethnographic museum is seeking financial support for a major new exhibition. 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 is 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.

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