BP and Stonehenge

BP and Stonehenge: what’s this all about?

The oil giant BP is sponsoring the new Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. We’re a group of theatrical activists (called BP or not BP?), who create protest performances – without permission – to challenge oil sponsorship of arts and culture.

We’re upset that the Stonehenge exhibition has been tainted by BP sponsorship, and we’re calling on the British Museum to end its deal with this polluting and destructive company. The museum’s current contract with BP runs out in early 2023, and the museum’s management are already in talks with BP about renewing the deal. If the museum is serious about protecting culture and heritage in a time of climate crisis, it needs to stop these talks and end the BP deal.

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What’s wrong with BP sponsorship?

The fossil fuel industry uses arts and culture sponsorship to make itself look good and hide its real activities. By forming partnerships with institutions like the British Museum, BP can pretend to be a generous supporter of the arts, a company that invests in history and culture rather than fossil fuel extraction and climate breakdown. 

But BP is far from benevolent. BP is one of four companies who are responsible for more than 10% of global carbon emissions since 1965. In 2021, the International Energy Agency made it clear that the world can afford no new fossil fuel projects if we want to keep global heating below 1.5 Degrees and avoid the most terrifying climate impacts. Yet BP is planning to drill for new oil and gas in Australia, Argentina and elsewhere. Earlier this year, a major study found that BP’s claims of going “net zero” are not being matched by its actions and are essentially greenwash.

BP provides less than 0.5% of the British Museum’s annual income. The vast majority of the museum’s money comes from the public – through our taxes, from exhibition tickets, and from museum Members. The museum should be acting in the interests of the public, not propping up the image of an oil giant, helping BP to drill for more oil and gas around the world.

The horrible irony of BP sponsoring Stonehenge

While the BP-sponsored World of Stonehenge exhibition features items dating as far back as 4000 years, BP is simultaneously involved in the ongoing destruction of Indigenous rock art in Western Australia up to 10 times older than Stonehenge.

Murujuga, Western Australia, contains over one million recorded petroglyphs (rock art), which hold deep cultural and spiritual significance to the Traditional Owners. The rock art is thought to depict the earliest known representations of the human face, and captures more than 50,000 years of Indigenous knowledge and spiritual beliefs. 

However, it has already suffered significant damage from a gas extraction project that is part-owned by BP, and now the proposed Burrup Hub LNG expansion is threatening to destroy the world’s largest collection of Indigenous rock art within 100 years. A $50bn mega-fossil fuel project, Burrup Hub will be the most polluting project ever to be developed in Australia if it goes ahead. Over its 50 year lifetime, Burrup Hub would generate over 6 billion tonnes of pollution, 11 times the annual emissions of Australia, while also speeding up the process of this precious artwork becoming permanently lost.

Josie Alec, a Kuruma Marthudunera woman whose cultural heritage, the Murujuga Rock art, is being slowly destroyed by BP’s LNG facility said: 

“We have big industry sitting on our Country every day, polluting our air, killing our animals, killing our plants and killing our Songlines. The Murujuga rock art is sacred like Stonehenge – and even older. This place is the world’s oldest creation story. BP have connections to the Karratha Gas Plant and a footprint here. They shouldn’t: the footprint belongs to the Ngurrara people.”

What BP gets out of the sponsorship

As well as generally boosting the company’s public image, BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum also gives it the chance to mingle with politicians at events such as openings and private dinners, cultivating strategic relationships that benefit its business

  • A recent damning report by Channel 4 News revealed that BP sits on the museum’s secretive ‘Chairman’s Advisory Group’, which operates almost entirely unaccountably and gives leaders of major corporations direct access to the museum’s decision-makers.
  • As BP was attempting to drill in the Great Australian Bight, it sponsored the British Museum’s Indigenous Australia exhibition and attended meetings at the Australian High Commission. (Fortunately, campaigners have since forced BP to pull out of the Bight!)
  • As BP prepared to bid on drilling licenses off the coast of Mexico, it sponsored a Mexico-themed festival where staff from BP attended a VIP reception with the Mexican ambassador and government ministers in the run-up to oil lease auctions. 
  • In recent years BP has also sponsored exhibitions of objects from Russia, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq, giving the company lobbying opportunities with officials from countries where it has important oil interests.
  • Thanks to its sponsorship deals, BP has established high-level relationships at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), with regular private meetings and issuing personal invitations from BP’s CEO to the Secretary of State to private launch events. 

BP sponsorship isn’t philanthropy. It’s strategic and selective, depending on what is most useful to ensure continued fossil fuel extraction. And despite providing a tiny portion of overall funding for the museum, BP has managed to wield influence over the content of events and exhibitions, with FOI requests finding BP staff have often been given chances to input into, sign-off and approve decisions related to programming and content. 

Essentially, BP can lobby for what they want, push back on what they don’t, and pretend their focus is on culture rather than climate destruction. That’s a lot of benefits for a seemingly innocuous sponsorship deal…

It’s time for the museum to #DropBP

Opinion polls show that only 28% of Londoners support the museum’s deal with BP and 62% of the British Museum’s own staff think the BP sponsorship is ‘unethical’. These polls are from 2016, and we believe the opposition on both fronts is even stronger today. In early 2022, over 300 archaeologists and historians signed a letter to the Board of Trustees calling on them to cut ties to BP. Most other arts institutions in the UK have dropped their oil sponsors in the last few years. But rather than listening to the public, its staff or the wider cultural sector, the British Museum’s management seem determined to push ahead with a new BP deal.

BP’s actions in Western Australia proves where its values truly lie. It’s time for the British Museum to join the numerous cultural institutions that have cut ties with fossil fuels. It’s time to #DropBP, once and for all.

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