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Was 'Day of the Dead' at the British Museum a festival bought by BP?

New FOI documents strengthens case that BP leant on British Museum to hold a "Days of the Dead" festival in 2015, shoring up ties to Mexican officials ahead of key drilling license auction

 

In 2015, BP came up with extra money on top of its existing sponsorship deal with the British Museum in order to sponsor a “Days of the Dead” festival. At that festival, BP would then enjoy a VIP reception with the Mexican Ambassador and members of the Mexican government, just weeks before it would bid on new drilling licenses in Mexico. One year on, we are making public fresh evidence which strengthens the case that, rather than simply sponsoring the festival, BP leant on British Museum to make it happen.

 

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The story so far

Earlier this year, as part of our report into BP’s influence over the museums and galleries it sponsors, we established that:

  • BP came up with extra money on top of its existing deal with the British Museum in order to sponsor a three-day “Days of the Dead” festival in October 2015

  • The event was organised in collaboration with the Mexican Embassy and on the opening night of the festival, BP enjoyed a VIP reception with the Mexican Ambassador and representatives of the Mexican government

  • The British Museum’s Head of Events asked the Mexican Embassy to delete the invitation list for the VIP reception as soon as it was no longer required

  • The event had been hastily put together, mostly over just 6 months

  • This all took place just as BP was preparing to bid on new drilling licenses from the Mexican government

  • The British Museum last held a Day of the Dead celebration in 2009 – it was not a regular fixture in the museum’s calendar but a ‘one-off’

These facts, uncovered through Freedom of Information requests, strongly suggested that BP used its offer of cash to make sure both that the festival happened, and that it happened at a time when it would boost the company’s own business interests. It seemed that the interests of a corporate sponsor were a determining factor in the museum’s decision to host the event. In response, the British Museum has said:

“Corporate partners of the British Museum do not and will never have any influence over the topic, content or timing of our temporary exhibitions or public programmes.”

But this, and new evidence we have acquired, suggests that BP did have exactly this kind of influence in this case. Indeed, BP’s Group Regional Vice President, Peter Mather, recently conceded that:

"When there is an option, naturally we are going to try to match a particular exhibition with somewhere we have an interest."

Extracting new sources of fossil fuels – as BP would be doing if it secured drilling licenses from the Mexican government – would contribute to pushing the world beyond a safe limit of global temperature rise. Also, the leases of interest to BP were located in the Gulf of Mexico, a region yet to recover from the devastating impacts of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Crucially, the British Museum knowingly provided a key networking opportunity for BP and the Mexican government and overlooked BP’s desire to work more closely with a government with a track record of human rights abuses and links to widespread enforced disappearances.

 

New findings strengthen the case

We have now gained new material under the Freedom of Information Act that has strengthened the case against the British Museum and has shown that their response is, at best, misleading. We now know that:

  • BP responded to a request for funding from the British Museum’s Chair of Trustees in June 2014, saying that its: “UK Arts & Culture budget is fully committed through to 2017. Responses to further requests will therefore, inevitably, be disappointing.”
  • We knew that BP provided money for the “Days of the Dead” on top of its existing sponsorship deal with the museum but it is clear that BP had also U-turned on its own stated position for an event that would be of direct benefit to its business interests. See Ex. 1 - British Museum informed applications for funds will be disappointing.pdf

  • As part of the internal evaluation of a similar BP-sponsored “Day of the Dead” event in 2009, staff at the British Museum agreed – and underlined within its evaluation document – that an event of this scale needs an 18 month lead in time.” The event in 2015 disregarded this recommendation, strengthening the case that the museum had succumbed to an external pressure. See Ex. 2 - Events of this kind require minimum of an 18-month lead-in time.pdf

  • The evaluation document from 2009 noted that it is best if similar events can “be linked to an existing exhibition”. The “Days of the Dead” festival in 2015 was not, with the most recent major exhibition being “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation”. See Ex. 3 - Best if events can be linked to a major exhibition.pdf

  • The 2009 event was explicitly planned in order to “provide a good networking opportunity and showcase for the sponsor”.

  • A single line noted in the evaluation of the 2009 “Day of the Dead” event makes it clear that corporate partners do have influence over the museum’s public programmes, even if it is unspoken: “It is not always practicable to sell a culture to a sponsor e.g. Afghanistan”. See Ex. 4 - DOTD 2009 to provide a 'good networking opportunity' for sponsor.pdf