Chris Garrard (L); Roy Clare

Is it possible for museums to move away from fossil fuel sponsorship?

Chris Garrard; Roy Clare, Issue 119/10, 01.20.2019
Dear Chris: 

Theoretically, yes. But many museums are charities with a duty to their trustees. Instruments of governance oblige trustees to act in the best interests of their organisations. Depending on how their deeds are worded, boards may feel compelled to invest from any legal source; members may not legally be free to pick and choose funding purely on ethical, moral or environmental grounds. 

Of course, if society determines that plausible, sustainable alternatives exist, and fossil fuel use has to end, then museums’ legal documentation would have to be amended to reflect the prevailing imperative. 

Best wishes, Roy

Dear Roy: 

The Museums Association’s Code of Ethics says museums should “seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent” with their own and should “conduct thorough and well-documented research to demonstrate that they have understood the nature of a [sponsor’s] business”. 

Even a basic process of due diligence would reveal how companies such as BP and Shell are investing billions in new oil and gas, when climate scientists are saying we must leave fossil fuels in the ground. A move away from fossil fuel sponsorship is therefore possible, and necessary, because it would be motivated by an assessment of evidence that identifies a clear inconsistency in ethical values. 

Best wishes, Chris

Dear Chris: 

Trustees can raise ethical points –and posit concerns for due diligence. But without evidence of illegality or malpractice, sponsorship often proceeds; further, some adduce positively that oil companies are researching sustainable alternative energies. Until the legal framework is changed, these are likely to be typical responses by those accountable. 

Best wishes, Roy

Dear Roy: 

Numerous universities and local authorities have divested from fossil fuels, with their boards recognising the financial and reputational risks. 

Therefore, when a museum’s board takes money from, and lends legitimacy to, oil companies, they are choosing not just to benefit from business as usual, but to defend it as well. And there is substantial evidence of malpractice, from BP’s record-breaking criminal fines arising from its Gulf of Mexico oil spill, to Shell being mired in a major corruption trial. 

If trustees are to fulfil their duty to safeguard the reputations of their museums, these risks posed by fossil fuel sponsorship must be accurately weighed and acted on. 

Best wishes, Chris

Dear Chris: 

Pledges have been made, but there are few robust examples of successful divestment; and even fewer of policies to invest in renewables.  Divestment is problematic under current legislation. Motives can be confused and impacts diluted by simultaneous calls to divest from unpopular corporate enterprises.

Local action is symbolic, legally risky and, to date, largely ineffective. To stimulate action to stem climate change, we need united political commitment and legislative follow-through. Museums are trusted to convey information with integrity. They can best help to galvanise people to vote for new civic strategies by interpreting collections and communicating via their programmes, not by risking their sustainability. 

Best wishes, Roy

Dear Roy: 

More than 1,000 institutions have divested almost $10tn from fossil fuels, making a powerful statement about the urgent need to decarbonise. So we should not underestimate the role museums can play by engaging people through their collections, reducing their carbon footprint and adopting an environmentally responsible approach to sponsorship. 

Despite funding cuts, museums have worked to convey information with integrity, but the fossil fuel industry has done the opposite, spending millions backing disinformation and lobbying against climate legislation. Museums are not neutral, and surely now is the moment to be aligned with the calls of climate scientists, striking kids and the communities being impacted, rather than those who caused the crisis. 

Best wishes, Chris

Roy Clare is the chair of Chelmsford Cultural Development Trust; Chris Garrard is the co-director of the campaigns and research organisation Culture Unstained

This year’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition, which takes place at Brighton Conference Centre on 3-5 October, has Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World as its theme

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