Tate Modern in London

Does sponsorship compromise museum values?

Rebecca Atkinson, 06.01.2014
Vote in the poll and have your say
Tate has been ordered to reveal details of its BP sponsorship in a legal case that raises again the issue of sponsorship and museums.

In a Freedom of Information ruling, the UK’s Information Tribunal has told Tate to disclose how much money BP has paid it as a sponsor between 1990-2006, as well as details of internal decision-making on the sponsorship deal. The case has been brought by the activism charity Platform.

Many museums seek sponsorship from companies for temporary exhibitions as well as permanent displays, but there have been concerns that chasing such money could compromise institutions’ values.

One respondent from a national museum said in the Museums Association’s (MA) 2014 cuts survey: “The need for funds is continually compromising content in exhibitions where individual supporters raise objections – this is particularly prevalent in exhibitions covering more contemporary content.”

However, others argue that sponsorship is a legitimate area of fundraising that helps build new relationships with external organisations.

Does accepting money from sponsors risk compromising museum values? Vote in the poll and have your say.


Does sponsorship compromise museum values?


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
07.01.2015, 15:24
It's good that this issue is debated, though like Anonymous, I fear that a simple "is it good or is it bad" question doesn't allow for the many nuances. There are clear risks in accepting money from sponsors (as there are risks in accepting money from any source). But we have to accept that museums are full of someone's views - the question is, whose? Yours? Mine? The sponsor's? The elected politician's? Let's drop the pretence that this isn't so. I certainly don't recognise the notion of "curatorial impartiality"!
And by the way, Geraldine is quite right - what appears in the Museums Journal does not represent MA policy or "attitude" unless it is authored by the Director or the President or by someone else on behalf of the MA Board. That's the way it is, and always has been.
MA Member
06.01.2015, 13:58
Is it wrong for a local authority museum struggling to deliver a full service after having their budget slashed to accept the sponsorship of a local company who employs people in the area the museum serves? No

Is it wrong for the Natural History Museum, who actively educates the effects of global warming as scientific fact, to accept a money from an individual who has given more money to organisations who lobby governments around the world against the effects of global warming? Yes. Very wrong.

So your question is over simplified and either indicates an attitude of the MA that it thinks its members are not capable of serious debate, or that the MA is out of touch with the sector as they try and fit a "one size fits all" approach to a diverse sector with diverse needs.

Each sponsorship and donation should be considered on an individual case. Sometimes it can comprimise curatorial impartiality, sometimes it doesn't. It cannot be a blanket yes/no question.

Hopefully the next poll will not be thought up in a post Christmas hangover and will be given thorough thought to respect the sector it is asking.
07.01.2015, 11:35
Hi Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. Firstly I just want to clarify, this poll is published by Museums Journal and in no way reflects the view or approach taken by the MA on this issue one way or another.

Of course there’s not much nuance that can be squeezed into one short question but, as with all our polls, it is intended to open up a wider debate on the subject.

For my part I completely agree that it’s not a simple yes or no answer, but I also think it’s a much broader issue for the sector than the two binary examples you give above. It’s not just about the rights or wrongs of an individual case, and it’s not just about the ethical practice of the individual donor or company – it’s about the general direction we’re heading in, where museums are moving towards a greater dependency on money from private sources. In our recent cuts survey, this was something that several respondents (based at a diverse range of museums, not just nationals) raised concerns about.

Just to reiterate, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with receiving private sponsorship, but as a wider trend it does give rise to questions that need to be examined more deeply. The most obvious of those is that, unlike public funding, which must at least give the impression of being allocated fairly and impartially, private sponsors can arbitrarily choose who receives their money. The quote we included in the story above indicates that some sponsors are not above requesting changes to museum content on condition of their support (there are numerous examples of this happening in the US, where museums are much more reliant on private funding).

Even if most sponsors don’t interfere directly in this way - and I’d hope that in most cases they don’t – moving towards a greater dependency on private sponsorship might still have an inhibitive effect on museums. Could it mean they pre-emptively shy away from controversial or experimental subject matter for fear of scaring off potential sponsors?

These are questions that are clearly of interest not only to museum professionals but to the general public – sponsorship (particularly the more eye-catching examples of museums taking money from oil companies/arms dealers) is one of the key museum-related topics that gets recurring coverage in the mainstream press. Does that mean there’s also a danger that those one or two high profile, individual cases could cause more widespread damage to the public’s trust in museums?

Conversely, there might also be people voting in the poll above who feel that the benefit to the public of accepting private money, whatever the source or impact on museum practice, outweighs all of these concerns – that is, even if it comes at a price, museums and the public gain even less from having no money to spend whatsoever.

Of course one poll can’t encapsulate all of these issues but surely that’s no reason not to ask the question and start the debate?