The National Portrait Gallery is one of the institutions that anti-oil campaigners plan to target

Pressure on museums after theatre companies dump fossil fuel sponsorship

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 10.10.2019
Youth activists to target more cultural institutions after RSC decision
Student climate activists are setting their sights on national museums after last week’s news that the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the National Theatre are ending their relationships with fossil fuel companies. 

The RSC announced last Wednesday that it would halt its partnership with BP at the end of this year, mid-way through a five-year deal that supports the theatre company’s £5 ticket scheme for 16- to 24-year-olds. In a statement, the company’s directors said pressure from young people had led them to take the “difficult decision” to end the relationship.

The statement said: “Amidst the climate emergency, which we recognise, young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC. We cannot ignore that message.

“It is with all of this in mind that we have taken the difficult decision to conclude our partnership with BP at the end of this year. There are many fine balances and complex issues involved and the decision has not been taken lightly or swiftly.”

The announcement was followed by the revelation that the National Theatre is to end Shell’s corporate membership next year. The theatre has declared a climate emergency and is setting itself “ambitious targets” to move towards carbon neutrality. 

The move by the two national theatre companies has put fossil fuel sponsorship in national museums under the spotlight. BP currently has partnership deals with the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum in London, while the Science Museum Group (SMG) has ongoing arrangements with Equinor (formerly known as Statoil) and BP. 

A group of student climate strikers held a meeting after the RSC announcement in which they criticised the three museums for their continuing relationship with fossil fuel firms, and indicated that these would be their next targets. The activists plan to focus on the SMG first because it makes a priority of engaging younger visitors, according to the Telegraph

The activist group BP or not BP?, which campaigns for arts institutions to divest themselves of fossil fuel money, also plans to keep the pressure up by staging “the largest protest the museum has ever seen” at the opening of the British Museum’s Troy exhibition in November, which will include a crowdfunded Trojan horse.

According to activists, the RSC’s decision was spurred on by support for the anti-oil movement within the company, as well as the wider acting community, where the actor Mark Rylance’s high profile resignation from the RSC over the summer left a big impact.

Anti-oil campaigners expect a more difficult task when it comes to divestment in museums, saying there remains significant resistance to such a move among trustees and senior management - although they were encouraged by the National Portrait Gallery’s decision to turn down a £1m grant from the Sackler Foundation earlier this year.

The SMG’s chief executive, Ian Blatchford, has strongly defended his institution’s corporate policies, saying in a recent internal email to staff that vilifying the fossil fuel industry was “seriously unproductive” and didn’t address the core of the problem.  

There was significant support for divestment among the 1,000 or so delegates at last week’s Museums Association conference in Brighton, where keynote speaker Clayton Thomas-Müller, the Canadian indigenous rights and environmental campaigner, detailed the damage fossil fuel giants had caused among First Nations communities. He described oil companies as “climate criminals” and urged museums not to end up on “the wrong side of history”. 

The developments come as Extinction Rebellion campaigners stage a two-week protest in cities around the world calling on governments to take urgent climate action.

Internal debate at the RSC

An email from the RSC’s artistic director Greg Doran to the company’s associate artists, seen by Museums Journal, gives more insight on the internal debates that preceded the theatre company’s decision. 

In the email, Doran acknowledged the “real challenges” that lay ahead after the company’s decision.  

“We need to raise at least £5m every year,” he wrote. “Will this decision make that job harder? It’s a complex and difficult issue with arguments passionately articulated in either direction: what pressure does it put on other arts organisations supported by BP?  How might it affect our relationship with other corporate sponsors? Where would we prefer BP’s profits to go? Will the action we take achieve more than a headline? When all arts institutions are facing shrinking state subsidies, can we afford to be picky about whatever corporate philanthropy we can find?”

Doran concluded: “Without the BP sponsorship we have a big challenge but we are determined to continue to provide affordable tickets for young people for all our shows. We don’t yet know how.”


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