Big Oil–backed addition to London’s British Museum sparks outrage

“Astonishingly out of touch”

Big Oil–backed addition to London’s British Museum sparks outrage

The British Museum (Ham/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

In London, the British Museum has announced a controversial refurbishment to the Western Range galleries of its Greek Revival abode by Sir Robert Smirke. The tentative project marks the largest addition to the nineteenth century edifice since the Foster + Partners-designed giant glass roof over its Great Court, completed in 2000.

The wing that hosts the British Museum’s collection of Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artifacts will, according to a press release from the British Museum, be induced with “contemporary architecture and innovative gallery displays, alongside sensitivity towards the need to respect and restore the highly significant and celebrated listed buildings on the site.”

“The Museum will be looking to find the most exciting proposals from across the globe, with a particular focus on expertise in sustainability – both environmental and economic,” the museum added.

The renovation will affect one-third of the building, about 80,000 square feet, and is part of a major master plan. Museum officials have called it “one of the most significant cultural redevelopment projects ever undertaken.” Still in its preliminary stages, a contract notice was made last month by British Museum seeking a consultant to lead a design competition for the refurbishment. The role seeks an individual or firm that would be responsible for overseeing “the delivery of the Design Team appointment.” This would entail communicating with participants during the contest, running events related to the design competition, working with the museum to announce the competition winner, and issuing the awarded contract.

According to the solicitation posting the role will last for a period of 13 months. The British Museum said it plans to launch the competition by spring 2024.

The expansion however has since been met with chagrin: The rehab is financed by British Petroleum (BP), an oil giant that’s pledged over $60 million to actualize the master plan. The capital will be installed incrementally over the next decade.

In recent years, other prominent London institutions like Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and Royal Shakespeare Company have refused money from BP, often derided by activists as one of the world’s largest polluters. To assuage concerns, museum officials announced the BP sponsorship will include a new energy center on site that will “see the phasing out of the use of fossil fuels within the museum’s estate.”

But many aren’t convinced. Muriel Gray, a former British Museum trustee, and former chair of the Macintosh School of Art in Glasgow, resigned after the partnership was announced last June. Chris Garrard, co-director of the activist group Culture Unsustained, said the announcement is “astonishingly out of touch” and “completely indefensible.

British Museum officials have since defended the decision, saying the institution is “delighted” to have BP’s support. Charlie Mayfield, chair of the British Museum’s master plan committee, defended the partnership, saying: “The British Museum is one of the largest and most visited cultural institutions in the world but some of its buildings are over 200 years old and in urgent need of refurbishment,” Mayfield said in a press release. “That’s why the masterplan is so essential – and it’s exciting to be moving forward with our plans.”