A protest by Art Not Oil against BP sponsorship at the British Museum's Day of the Dead festival last year. Photo: Diana More

Ethics Committee responds to Art Not Oil allegations

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 17.08.2016
Committee finds no evidence that Code of Ethics was breached
The Museums Association’s (MA) Ethics Committee has responded to allegations published in a recent report by the Art Not Oil Coalition regarding the relationship between the oil company BP and the cultural institutions it sponsors.

The Art Not Oil Coalition, which opposes BP’s sponsorship of institutions including the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum, directly requested that the Ethics Committee consider emails between BP and its cultural partners released via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, which it believed to contain evidence of unethical behaviour, including collusion against protestors and curatorial interference by the oil giant.

The committee met earlier in the summer to discuss the report’s findings, and has ruled that the evidence outlined in the report does not breach the MA’s Code of Ethics. A statement today emphasised that “the Ethics Committee’s remit extends to a consideration of the relationship between a museum and a sponsor; it does not extend to commenting more generally on the global practices of BP”.

It added: “The committee does not believe that there can be a one-size-fits-all solution to sponsorship issues, and it is not the role of the Ethics Committee to hold a list of proscribed companies or industries that museums should avoid.”

Addressing the report’s allegations that the cultural institutions had shared security information about anti-oil protests with BP, the statement said: “It is legitimate and desirable for a museum to seek to protect its visitors, its staff, its collections and its assets when a protest is planned within the museum. It is common practice for a museum to share security knowledge with others in the sector and with the police.”

It added that there was no evidence that the museums in question had prevented peaceful protest from taking place.

The committee scrutinised allegations in the report about BP’s influence on museum programming. It said: “The committee believes that it is common practice for a museum to update a sponsor on the planning and content of an exhibition.”

The committee also considered an allegation that BP had been allowed undue influence on curatorial decision-making, stemming from an email sent by a British Museum employee checking that the oil company had “no objection” to the acquisition of a painting for a BP-sponsored exhibition. 

The statement said: “The committee recommends against seeking direct approval on acquisitions or exhibition content, as it may create pressures to self-censor or give the appearance of undue sponsor influence. However, the committee also notes that updating a sponsor on the changing use of sponsorship funds - i.e. from a commission to an acquisition - is appropriate.”

Regarding allegations that BP had used museum events as a means of gaining lobbying access to politicians, the statement said: “It is standard practice for sponsorship agreements to involve a range of events, which may involve networking between different sectors. There is no evidence that any of the museums mentioned have exceeded their position in supporting a sponsor in this way.”

The statement added that “none of the emails quoted in the report suggest anything other than polite correspondence and friendly working relationships”.

“The inclusion of such correspondence in the Art Not Oil report was considered poorly judged,” it said. 

The MA’s director Sharon Heal said: “The issue of sponsorship in museums is a growing concern for the sector and the public, particularly as sponsorship increases to replace decreasing public funding. 

“The MA Ethics Committee believes that it is important that museums conduct sponsorship arrangements ethically. Museums must fully understand the background of sponsors in order to meet their own ethical and governance requirements, and need to be satisfied that sponsorship agreements do not undermine the wider public trust in museums.

“The Art Not Oil report raised important questions about how museums should conduct their sponsorship arrangements, and the Ethics Committee has responded to these issues in full today. 

“The committee has recognised the rights of protestors and has asked museums to scrutinise all sponsorship arrangements to ensure that they uphold the Code of Ethics for Museums, and has also recognised that there cannot be a one-size-fits all solution to the issue of oil sponsorship.”  

BP announced at the end of July that it had renewed a sponsorship deal worth £7.5m with its cultural partners, including the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, for another five years.


Ethics Committee response to Art Not Oil allegations


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17.08.2016, 14:55
If Art Not Oil wants sponsorship to come from somewhere other than the conflicted private sector, where are the sources? Even if the State had sufficient funds, would Art Not Oil accept sponsorship from a government which supports fracking and nuclear power?

Some joined-up thinking is needed. Surely it is the exhibition which should be the deciding factor, not blind political prejudice.
17.08.2016, 20:26
Certainly there are exhibitions where the content should clearly be the determining factor for deciding whether a corporate sponsor is appropriate. For example, BP's sponsorship of the British Museum's 'Indigenous Australia' exhibition was ill-advised given the well documented impacts of the extractive industries on Aboriginal peoples.

We should make a distinction between 'blind political prejudice' though and a legitimate concern about how sponsorship aids a company where corporate criminality and links to rights violations have been widely reported. Regardless of the exhibition, there is a tacit endorsement of a particular business agenda by accepting a company's sponsorship - and in BP's case, it is an agenda that runs counter to the scientific consensus on climate change.
17.08.2016, 13:10
Art Not Oil commented:

"We believe that no interaction between BP and a cultural institution takes place in an ethical vacuum. When it comes to fossil fuels, we urgently need to go beyond ‘standard practice’, both in our cultural institutions and in society."

You can read Art Not Oil's full response to today's statement by the Museums Association's Ethics Committee, here: