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Canadian museum accepts oil sponsor despite censorship

This was originally posted on the Platform blog.

Last week the Canadian Museum of Civilisation announced it had struck a sponsorship deal with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. It's easy to see why this will be a PR coup for CAPP. But the Museum CEO's beaming acceptance of oil money seems like an announcement that no lines will be drawn and no sponsors will be turned away. Especially when the very sponsors involved were revealed to have censored previous exhibitions at other museums. For CAPP, the association with the gallery that will soon host celebrations of 150 years of confederation conveys a hope to secure a place for the companies in Canada's future. The companies desperately need the social licence to operate that association with prestigious arts institutions can bring, especially at a time when Canadian public opinion and international attention is being drawn to the Indigenous Rights violations and ecological devastation of Canada's tar sands. John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club, put the deal in the context of wider efforts by the industry to unsully its public image, saying

We don't like the fact that the oil industry is engaged in probably the biggest propaganda campaign in the history of the country. This (museum sponsorship) would only be one part of it.

CAPP's strategy was also unsupported in the Canadian parliament. New Democrat MP Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet challenged in the House of Commons that the museum should not "become a propaganda machine", asking

Is it now the mission of our museums to promote the oil lobby?

The Museum of Civilisation, which is located in Gatineau, Quebec, holds a similar position to the British Museum in London, housing the stolen riches of the British Empire, but in its case it houses artworks and objects of cultural significance to First Nations, in two of its major exhibitions, presenting a sanitised version of colonisation. The Museum represents one way in which the Canadian state attempts to historicise the cultures of First Peoples at the same time as withdrawing rights or reneging on agreements with First Nations. The Museum has been the location of numerous Idle No More events and protests in defence of First Nations constitutional rights, including this recent ceremony held as an intervention in the gallery to mark the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation,

CAPP and associated Canadian oil sponsors of the arts Imperial Oil were found to have been pressurising another Canadian museum to withdraw content from their exhibits that they found too critical of Big Oil. The Huffington Post reported:

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and Imperial Oil ran into controversy in 2011 when they sponsored exhibits at the federal Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa. Documents later showed they had exerted pressure to alter exhibit content they felt treated the industry too harshly.

The sponsors bask in the idea that they are providing vital sponsorship, but in fact the reality is it is often small percentages of funding that are accepted in return for massive PR value for the company. CAPP has promised $200,000 a year over for five years - but this is a tiny slice of the institution's $88m annual budget, of which the government funds 80%. Platform has examined the question of ethics and oil sponsorship in the magazine 'Not if but when: Culture Beyond Oil'. Clayton Thomas Muller, a First Nations activist, recently spoke of his refusal of an oil company sponsored award, calling on First Nations communities to join him in rejecting such deals:

We must end corporate sponsorship of our arts institutions by these genocidal corporations…they bring death, cancer and destruction to our people, land and water in all places they operate.

Oil sponsors are controversial in Canada as they are in the UK. Oil sponsors BP at Tate and Shell at Southbank were both criticised in the past month by art activists Liberate Tate and Shell Out Sounds, whose performances in each cultural institution can be viewed below.