Deputy chair quit before British Museum announced £50m BP deal - Museums Association

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Deputy chair quit before British Museum announced £50m BP deal

Board minutes reveal ‘strong personal disagreement’ among trustees and concern over security risks
Trustees discussed the risks of escalating protests in response to the BP deal. Pictured: A creative protest by anti-oil campaigners in February 2020
Trustees discussed the risks of escalating protests in response to the BP deal. Pictured: A creative protest by anti-oil campaigners in February 2020 Photo by Hugh Warwick

The British Museum’s deputy chairwoman resigned at a board meeting last month during a discussion of the institution’s £50m corporate sponsorship package with BP.

Board minutes from 27 November reveal that the Scottish author and broadcaster Muriel Gray, who had been a trustee for seven years, informed the board during the meeting that she had “made a personal decision to submit her resignation as a trustee to the government”.

Historian Mary Beard, a fellow trustee, told The Times this week that she had personally opposed the sponsorship deal but had accepted the view of the majority of the board.

Minutes show that intense discussions took place around the implications of accepting the controversial £50m BP deal in the months leading up to this week’s announcement.

The deal is reportedly the largest corporate sponsorship package ever agreed by a museum in the UK. It has been heavily criticised by environmental campaigners, with the director of Greenpeace UK describing it as "one of the biggest, most brazen greenwashing sponsorship deals the sector has ever seen".

The minutes of a meeting on 29 June show that some trustees “indicated strong personal disagreement about accepting money from companies in the sponsor’s line of business" but all resolved to "act as a united board".

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It was during this meeting that the board “unanimously agreed that accepting the sponsorship was on balance in the best interests of the museum and the protection, display and use of its collection”.

The decision came after trustees considered evidence that the proposed sponsorship would significantly support the museum’s masterplan, and heard that delays to the redevelopment “would increase risk to safety (people and property) and to the collection due to the deteriorating condition of the fabric and infrastructure of parts of the Bloomsbury estate”.

Trustees were shown polling demonstrating that public opinion supported the use of private sponsorship over taxpayers’ money to fund the redevelopment.

The board also heard concerns that BP had watered down its own energy transition plans, but recognised that “this was accompanied by maintained or improved positions in other respects”.

“It was also noted that the sponsor’s energy transition plans were independently assessed to be among the most advanced within the sector,” the minutes say.

Discussions have also taken place in recent months over the heightened risk to the museum’s visitors and collections posed by escalating environmental protests in response to the deal.

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At a meeting in October, trustees discussed the increase of protest activity in museums and “noted with concern that collection items were now being targeted too”.

The minutes show that trustees told the museum’s executive to prepare for the potential risks to security that would come from the then-impending announcement about the BP partnership. The board reaffirmed its decision to accept the donation but requested further discussion of “more robust security arrangements”.

At the November board meeting, the head of visitor and security services, David Bilson, warned trustees that “the risk of an attempt to damage the collection might be heightened following the announcement of the corporate sponsorship under discussion and could not be fully avoided without inhibiting public access to the collection”.

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