In recent months two major discussions have been playing out at the British Museum. Firstly, workers have been organising strike action over pay, pensions, redundancy terms and job security. Secondly, the British Museum has faced growing pressure to confirm the status of the institution’s relationship with the oil and gas company BP, after the firm’s 5-year sponsorship of temporary exhibitions formally came to an end on February 19th. So far the museum have refused to confirm whether the deal has been renewed or if ties have been cut for good. Earlier this week, law Firm Leigh Day also wrote to the Museum on behalf of Culture Unstained to formally request that it confirms the status of the BP partnership after it appeared to snub a request for clarification from the Guardian last month.
Today I want to talk about how these two things are linked. Because there’s no climate justice without workers’ rights.
Ostensibly, these two claims seem inherently at odds with each other: how can we ask for better pay and conditions for workers, while also asking the British Museum to cut ties with a source of funding? So let’s examine some key facts.
Firstly, let’s consider the actual money pledged. BP’s most recent sponsorship deal offered £7.5 million to be paid to the British Museum, Royal Opera House, National Portrait Gallery and Royal Shakespeare Company over a five-year period.
In 2015 the annual income of the British Museum was £119m, the Royal Opera House £128m, National Portrait Gallery £29m, and the Royal Shakespeare Company £64m. That’s a total of £1700m in combined income, of which BP provided 0.4%. If BP’s money was shared equally, then this funding contributed 0.3% at British Museum, 0.3% at the Royal Opera House, 1.3% at the National Portrait Gallery, and 0.6% at the RSC. These sums are so small that, in many cases, it wasn’t even enough to cover the remuneration of top executives in each building. There is no clear correlation between BP funding and improvements in pay and conditions for workers and, as each deal was five years in length, there was no sustainable, long-term guarantee that could be gleaned from these funding decisions.
Secondly, it’s important to note what this funding was spent on. FOI requests have consistently found that money from BP sponsorship was directed in ways that wouldn’t have made its way to front of house workers such as security or front-of-house staff. Instead, funding was strategically allocated to exhibitions and events that would enable BP to mingle with politicians at openings and private dinners, cultivating beneficial relationships. For example, as BP was attempting to drill in the Great Australian Bight, it sponsored the museum’s Indigenous Australia exhibition and attended meetings at the Australian High Commission. Additionally, as BP prepared to bid on drilling licenses off the coast of Mexico, it sponsored a Mexico-themed festival at short notice. Staff from BP attended a VIP reception with the Mexican ambassador and government ministers in the months before oil lease auctions, and the British Museum went on to request the Mexican Embassy delete the invitation list for one such VIP reception with BP. It seems unlikely that any money from BP was allocated to improving pay or conditions for workers.
In fact, at times, BP’s sponsorship of these institutions directly threatened workers. When the PCS Union, which represents multiple museum and gallery workers who have been striking recently, voted to support the campaign against oil sponsorship in 2015 and call for ethical funding policies for the arts, BP immediately contacted its cultural partners to ask if any employees were represented by this union. For corporate sponsors – especially those contributing such small amounts to overall funding – to wield this level of influence over workers is deeply concerning.
No one is free until all are free
The issues of workers’ rights and fossil fuel sponsorship are not in opposition; they are two symptoms of the same problem. The climate crisis can’t be extricated from racism; the domination of oil and gas giants can’t be separated from capitalist systems that reward CEOs with huge sums while security staff struggle to pay bills, both working under the same roof.
These issues are connected, their roots are the same.
It is greed that leads an institution to pay excessive salaries to top executives while offering vital workers that keep an organisation running real terms pay cuts and poor conditions. It is greed that leads fossil fuel companies to pursue constant growth and risky extraction; pouring millions into greenwashing and lobbying against climate policy, all the while hurtling us into a climate emergency with increasing speed. It is systems of white supremacy; legacies of imperialism and colonisation that have morphed into neocolonial extractivism, harming Global South communities and destroying nature. Dropping BP and committing to better conditions for workers are two steps the British Museum can and should take to begin building a more equitable organisation.
The working class is a diverse, global coalition that stands together in solidarity. No one is free until the most marginalised are free, and so issues of climate justice cannot be separated from worker justice. We must demand an end to the fossil fuel era if we want a liveable future, but we must also demand a future in which workers are treated with dignity and respect. These are both facets of a multi-layered solution to achieve true equity for people and planet.
On a practical level, there is nothing to indicate that cutting ties with fossil fuel sponsorship will impact budgets for workers’ pay or rights. But on a larger scale, if the British Museum wants to move from a site of bloody, imperial history to a place of potential, all of these complex questions must be reckoned with. Building a better world requires a just transition and economic policy that supports workers spanning from the Global South to major Western cities. Workers of the world are united in their struggle, and only by approaching the future with this nuanced understanding can we achieve justice for all.
These are not black-and-white issues, these are long-term projects to protect planetary and human health. Sometimes decisions may be difficult or require us to be brave. This doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile.
Alternative models for arts funding
Campaigns in the UK against fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and culture are built on a foundation of solidarity with all affected by systemic injustices across the world. They stand alongside unions and workers, recognising the complexity of being present in these spaces at a time when Arts Council Funding is being cut and the cost of living crisis is extremely concerning.
The arts and culture sector needs to be viewed as a crucial public good that underpins social development and flourishing. It can’t be viewed through a capitalistic lens or treated as a luxury for only the elite to enjoy. We need a thriving arts sector, with full public subsidy alongside fair pay and terms for workers keeping these buildings running, so that institutions aren’t pushed to make these kinds of financial choices in the first place. There is still scope for different models of sponsorship, perhaps from more ethical financers or a combined portfolio of small, sustainable businesses. But institutions shouldn’t be put in positions where they have to rely on these deals to survive.
Consider Australia’s recent policy announcements. While imperfect, the federal government’s $300m national cultural policy Revive has clearly listened to the arts community, as it dedicated an extra $286 million over four years to the post-pandemic arts sector following an extensive year-long consultation process with the entire industry. Policies include increased funding across regions, increased tax incentives, dedicated bodies to fund and support artist development, reversal of past funding cuts, and a watchdog on issues of artists’ pay, workplace safety and welfare.
Following over a decade of declining or stagnant funding, these policy shifts have been widely met with enthusiasm by artists and workers across the Australian cultural sector. There is a distinct sense that these are policy choices that value art for the people, not just for profit. There are also clear provisions to care for workers, and a rejection of elitism in favouring art and culture as key components to societal growth. Instead of constant cuts that create a strained environment for cultural institutions, the UK should follow Australia’s lead in recognising how vital the creative sector is.
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Recent data reveals that the UK has four of the top ten most visited museums in the world, more than any other country, attracting at least £856m of tourist spending. Plus, for every £1 of salary paid by the arts and culture industry, an additional £2.01 is generated in the wider economy through indirect and induced multiplier impacts. In 2019 it was also announced that arts and culture had overtaken agriculture in terms of its contribution to the UK economy, despite 74% of arts organisations being affected by public funding cuts. If the government wants a thriving economy, cutting cultural funding is a short-sighted approach. In recent months BP, Shell and Equinor have announced record profits of £23 billion, £32 billion and £62 billion respectively. It’s not unreasonable to demand this obscene wealth is taxed properly. These numbers are so high that no cultural institution would ever need to make a direct deal with a fossil fuel company again, with significant sums available to be dedicated to arts and culture, as well as countless other social needs across the country. The money and resources are there, they simply need to be distributed correctly.
When it comes to both fossil fuel sponsorship and workers’ rights these are choices, not inevitabilities. Yes, the context of funding cuts and the financial future of the arts is complex. However, as BP’s sponsorship contributions have comprised such small percentages of overall budgets, it’s clear that the choice to take this funding, and how that money is allocated, is not the only way a cultural organisation can be run. There’s a growing list of cultural organisations, -including the RSC, Royal Opera House, National Portrait Gallery, Southbank Centre and National Theatre – that have all cut their ties to fossil fuels and continued to put on great exhibitions and plays. Fossil fuel companies are not the lifeline or generous philanthropists they appear to be.
If arts and culture are meant to inspire, to help us imagine the future world we want to build, our cultural sector needs to be committed to equity across all levels of organisations.
This morning Culture Unstained also launched a new film, highlighting how BP has used its decades-long relationship with the Museum to shore up relationships with repressive regimes in Russia, Mexico and Egypt in order to further its fossil fuel extraction. Everything mentioned is based directly on what has played out inside the Museum’s walls and been uncovered through our investigations, including…
- How the company sponsored a festival on Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’, where it met with the Mexican government during a VIP reception – before successfully bidding for new drilling licences just months later
- BP strategically sponsoring an exhibition on archaeology from Russia, while also sponsoring cultural organisations in the country, in order to put a positive spin on its ties to President Putin and the state oil company Rosneft
- BP added its logos to exhibitions on Egyptian archaeology while praising the country’s repressive rulers, and claiming that the company were “fellow explorers of the deep” because their own fossil gas extraction was little different to the work of marine archaeologists
They’ve also published a new background briefingon our website that sets out the full story behind all the examples in the film.