Did the British Museum sell ‘Day of the Dead’ to BP?

One year on, new documents tell a damning story of an iconic museum, its oil sponsor and a rights-violating government. Chris Garrard reports.


by Diana More

Exactly a year ago, the British Museum marked the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos or ‘Day of the Dead’ with a bold festival of ‘art, music, storytelling and talks’. It was set to be an elaborate celebration of Mexican culture spread over four days but as part of that festival, the museum would knowingly provide its sponsor BP with the perfect setting to strengthen its ties to the Mexican government. Now, with new documents gained under the Freedom of Information Act, this is the story of how big oil and members of a rights-violating government could meet inside an iconic public museum.

In recent months, BP’s sponsorship has become the biggest challenge for the British Museum’s new director, Hartwig Fischer. Despite protests against BP’s sponsorship of the arts growing in scale and imagination, he recently decided to sign a new fuve year deal with the company, but controversially left the museum’s trustees out of the decision-making process. BP’s payments represent less than 1 per cent of the museum’s budget but in return, it is able to brand big exhibitions as part of a cheap strategy for cleansing its tarnished image. However, new documents reveal that the British Museum’s ‘Days of the Dead’ festival in 2015 offered up a special set of benefits for BP, above and beyond these PR perks. Crucially, they raise the question of how far the museum was willing to go to please its sponsor.

Last year, oil sponsorship campaigners ‘BP or not BP?’ joined forces with ‘London Mexico Solidarity’, a group committed to supporting social and environmental struggles, justice and democracy in Mexico, to creatively protest at the ‘Days of the Dead’ festival. A member of London Mexico Solidarity sets out the scene of a year ago:

The British Museum’s ‘Days of the Dead’ festival took place within a wider context of the UK and Mexican governments forging closer ties, through the 2015 UK-Mexico dual year. As part of this, promotion of the arts, education and culture acted as a smokescreen for companies like BP to gain greater access to Mexico’s plentiful natural resources. BP has already left a terrible legacy in Mexico, following the devastating 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mexico is in the grips of a terrible human rights crisis in which tens of thousands of people have been killed or disappeared in recent years. The Mexican government has played an active role in much of this violence. Through its collaborations with the Mexican government, and with companies like BP, the British Museum is turning its back on the millions of Mexicans living this harsh reality every day.

But looking back a year later this story takes a further suspicious turn. We now know that in a letter to the museum’s Chair of Trustees in June 2014, BP had declared its coffers closed to the British Museum:

‘Our UK Arts & Culture budget is fully committed through to 2017. Responses to further requests for financial support will, therefore, inevitably be disappointing.’

Rather than support the museum’s new multi-million pound ‘World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre’ – as the Chair of Trustees had originally requested – BP informed the museum that it would keep its hands firmly in its pockets. Meanwhile, other less contentious donors stumped up large sums. Just two of the Sainsbury’s Family Trusts donated £25 million between them – an amount that makes BP’s sponsorship of the museum’s temporary exhibitions pale in comparison.

The plot thickened further when the museum announced the ‘Days of the Dead’ festival – in association with the Mexican Embassy and sponsored by BP – but it turned out that this wouldn’t form part of the company’s existing sponsorship deal at the museum. Instead, BP had dug up some extra cash just for this festival, an event that materialised over a matter of months. Why did BP change its tune? Were the company’s plans to bid on drilling licenses from the Mexican government a few months later a factor? In reality, was this event not just BP-sponsored but BP-manufactured too?

Earlier this year, we revealed some of the strange circumstances surrounding the ‘Days of the Dead’ festival as part of a damning report into BP’s influence over the museums and galleries it sponsors. It showed how BP conveniently enjoyed a VIP reception at the festival with members of the Mexican government and the Mexican ambassador, at what was a strategically crucial time for BP. But new documents appear to show that the museum willingly broke its own internal recommendations when planning ‘Days of the Dead’ in 2015 – and the key question is why. While the museum has argued that its corporate partners ‘do not have any influence over the content of our exhibitions’, these new documents tell a different story.

These new documents suggest that the British Museum may not have just provided BP with a good networking opportunity but actually gone some way in specially creating the circumstances for it

Following a similar ‘Day of the Dead’ event in 2009, also sponsored by BP, the British Museum undertook an internal evaluation process where it freely noted that a goal of the event was to provide BP with a ‘good networking opportunity’. That may appear relatively harmless until you take into account some of BP’s spend on lobbying at that time. In 2009, BP spent $16 million on lobbying the US federal government, just two years before its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Taken as a whole, BP’s ‘good networking opportunities’ at the museum and elsewhere have formed part of a carefully planned lobbying strategy that helped to derail crucial climate legislation and push forward projects such as deep-water drilling, with corners being cut.

But more concerning is that the museum recorded two key recommendations in its internal evaluation, which were then disregarded in 2015. The first recommendation was that it is best if ‘events can be linked to a major exhibition’. But the ‘Days of the Dead’ festival in 2015 clearly stood apart from the museum’s major exhibitions and planned programme of events. The second recommendation – which was underlined in the evaluation for emphasis – was that an event of this scale requires an 18-month lead in period. Unlike the one-day event in 2009, the ‘Days of the Dead’ festival in 2015 was a more elaborate four day festival, yet it was largely put together in just six months. What was so urgent that the museum felt able to break its own internal recommendations for planning events? And why did the British Museum – who wanted to channel funding towards its new conservation centre – not tell BP that requests to sponsor other events ‘would inevitably be disappointing’?

But one further line in the museum’s evaluation document stands out starkly – noting that ‘it is not always practicable to sell a culture to a sponsor’. Given the origins of much of the British Museum’s collection, the spoils of colonialism and empire, it seems in poor taste to talk about ‘selling’ a culture to anyone, let alone a sponsor such as ‘British Petroleum’. This single line also highlights that, contrary to the museum’s claims, events and programmes are tailored to the tastes of sponsors, even if simply by omission. If a shortlist of potential event topics were narrowed down, would BP’s willingness to ‘buy’ that culture be taken into account? Earlier this year, BP’s Vice President, Peter Mather, conceded that, ‘When there is an option, naturally we are going to try to match a particular exhibition with somewhere we have an interest.’ Now, the key question is whether the museum, in any way, matched ‘Days of the Dead’ to BP’s interests in Mexico.

And that’s the crucial point – where BP’s interests lay. It isn’t just that BP is attempting to drill for oil that needs to stay in the ground if we are to keep global temperature rise within a safe limit. BP is pursuing those new fossil fuels in direct collaboration with a government tied to human rights violations. And now these new documents suggest that the museum may not have just provided BP with a good networking opportunity but actually gone some way in specially creating the circumstances for it. It may not always be practicable to sell a culture to a sponsor, but when it came to selling Day of the Dead to BP, the British Museum appears to have been all too willing.

Chris Garrard is a composer, campaigner and member of Art Not Oil, a coalition of groups that campaigns against oil sponsorship of the arts. Visit artnotoil.org.uk for more. @ArtNotOil