The ethics of culture: British Museum must cut ties with sponsor BP

The ethics of culture: British Museum must cut ties with sponsor BP
The British Museum has faced growing criticism over its funding, how it sourced ancient artefacts and its treatment of workers. Activists are calling on the institution to start making ethical decisions by cutting ties with BP, writes Zoe Lafferty.
7 min read
14 Feb, 2023
With the decades-old sponsorship deal set to end on 19 February, the pressure is mounting for the British Museum to end its unethical relationship with BP, writes Zoe Lafferty.

As BP scales back climate targets announcing record profits amidst a cost of living crisis, its cultural partner the British Museum, has never looked so out of touch. With the decades-old sponsorship deal set to end on 19 February, the pressure is mounting for the museum to end this unethical relationship.

Whatever the outcome, it is only one of the many controversies surrounding what has become Britain’s most contentious museum. From stolen artefacts to war profiteering, workers’ rights to the climate crisis, issues inside the museum often directly mirror those of Britain’s past and present. Actions that have directly impacted people, cultures and countries across the Middle East.

I first became engaged in activism at the museum in 2019 when the film Queens Of Syria, was to be featured in the exhibition 'Troy: Myth and Reality,’ sponsored by BP. A modern retelling of Euripides play, its themes of war and displacement told by 13 Syrian women echoed the destruction that BP is notorious for.

''Whilst access, inclusivity and costs are continually cited to justify unethical funding, it's worth noting that the BP sponsorship is only 0.3% of the museum’s annual income.''

Cast member Reem Alsayyah called the sponsorship a "devastating blow”. Together we wrote an open letter to the museum’s director, Hartwig Fishe, and the board of trustees. It highlighted the British government and BP’s 100-year role in conflict, colonialism and displacement across the Middle East, motivated by oil and gas reserves.

The letter urged that art has a larger purpose than entertainment, and creators, audiences and institutions have an intrinsic responsibility to consider their relationship to injustice.

Jill Maggs, head of exhibitions, eventually responded, maintaining that “the Museum is genuinely unable to undertake programming of the scale of the Troy exhibition without external support”.

Justifying the unethical

Whilst access, inclusivity and costs are continually cited to justify unethical funding, it's worth noting that the BP sponsorship is only 0.3% of the museum’s annual income. These arguments become increasingly jarring when considering the £22 entrance fee to the exhibition and that not one member of the team was paid for our contribution.

Despite a speech at the opening celebrating the inclusion of refugee narratives, it was strikingly apparent that the main focus of this BP-funded cultural event was to embrace the wealthy, heads of government, and business execs.

Exclusive groups and their hidden agendas were more concretely revealed by Culture Unstained, that recently exposed the “Chairman’s Advisory Group”. Headed by George Osborne, his appointment received substantial backlash - as chancellor he cut 15% funding for national museums and a 30% of the Arts Council England’s budget whilst providing billions in subsidies to the oil industry.

The “Chairman’s Advisory Group” consists of an almost entirely unaccountable group of 30 global corporate leaders including BP, fossil banks Citi and Bank of America, a multinational arms company and mining giant Glencoreheads.

Whilst having “no formal role within the museum’s governance structure” the group have been invited to brainstorm new ideas on “How the British Museum should engage with the new government” and have direct access to the museum's Chairman and Director.

Meanwhile, those who keep the museum functioning, its workers, contributors and communities with ties to the collections, struggle to receive basic correspondence.


Creative protests and strikes have become a way to reclaim space and voice concerns, unwittingly making the museum one of the only platforms where corporations and their players are being held accountable for their actions and crimes.

BP sponsorship of the Troy exhibition put us in an impossible position - to remove the piece and, therefore lose a chance to highlight the harsh realities many of the Syrian women were living in - or go ahead and contribute to transforming BP’s image into one of philanthropist and a supporter of the arts.

In response to the Troy exhibition, activists from Bp Or Not Bp? created a wooden 4-meter-high Trojan horse and organised over a thousand protestors to take over the museum. By joining them we could stand by our ethics and still have a powerful platform to speak about the displacement of our team.

In her resignation from the board of trustees in 2019, British Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, cited “[a]ctivists bringing ever bigger and more creative protests into the museum”.

This was just months after protestors created a 200-metre “living artwork” in response to the exhibition ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria’. Performances highlighted how Britain had stolen many of the exhibition's objects and that the sponsor, BP, was one of the biggest profiteers from the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq.

Protestors reclaimed the space for the day, and heard from voices like Yasmin Younis who have been directly affected by BP’s actions: “These are the very same sponsors who advocated for the war which destroyed my homeland and slaughtered my people all in the name of oil”. She highlighted BP and the British Museum’s attempt to use her culture and history to hide “colonialist skeletons.”

Soueif maintained that she did not resign “in protest at a single issue”. Instead that the museum needed to take a stance on multiple problems from “climate change, vicious and widening inequality, the residual heritage of colonialism, questions of democracy, citizenship and human rights”. She also spoke of concerns about the mistreatment of the museum's key workers, and refusal to engage in discussions with them.

These unresolved tensions drove the museum’s staff to join recent PCS Union strikes due to poor pay and labour conditions, which even led to the museum’s closure.

In fact, this was the second time in recent months that the museum has had to close its doors. In the summer, temperatures rose to the hottest on record in the UK, making the space a danger to staff and the public. However, far from rising to face these multiple crises, the British Museum continues to ignore questions of critical concern.

A history of controversy

Currently on, is the ‘Hieroglyphs unlocking ancient Egypt’ exhibition which opened in time for the controversial COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh. The exhibition's centrepiece was The Rosette Stone, a hotly disputed stolen object from Egypt, ironically engraved with the phrase ‘It should be in the hands of those who live in the country.’

Egyptologist and academic Monica Hana, has petitioned for The Rosette Stone’s return, stating: “It is a symbol of western colonialism over my culture…It represents a spoil of war.”

It’s one of the roughly 300,000 objects the British Museum has in its Middle East collection, with “donations” dating back to the 18th century, and Sir Hans Sloane the institution’s founding collector. A known profiteer of colonialism, the British empire and slavery, he recently had his bust removed to a less prominent position in the museum promoted by global Black Lives Matter protests.

Once again, the Hieroglyph exhibition is sponsored by BP, the largest oil producer in Egypt. BP’s CEO Bernard Looney praised president Sisi’s “wise leadership and ambitious vision”; disregarding laws that have imprisoned an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in what Human Rights Watch calls a “relentless crackdown on civil society.”

The exhibition opened to a performance protest with readings from imprisoned writer Alaa Abd El Fattah’s latest book, You Are Not Yet Defeated, and activists once again challenged the museum.

In the coming week, as workers’ strikes are set to continue, activists wait to see if BP sponsorship will be renewed, promising “celebration or escalation”. Whatever the outcome, the capability of the British Museum to be a bold cultural leader that addresses rather than ignores crucial ethical and political issues will remain in question.

Zoe Lafferty is associate director at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine where she is currently collaborating on the global solidarity project ‘The Revolution’s Promise’ and virtual reality film ‘In A Thousand Silences’.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.