The Case for Cutting Museum Ties to Big Oil

This article is the first part of a two part series written by Guest Blogger, Katie Perfitt, the Canada Divestment Organizer with*. Katie is currently running a campaign calling on the Museum of History in Gatineau, QC to drop the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. In this piece, she explores the myth of acceptable oil sponsorship. In the second part, you’ll hear from Katie about why the Museum of History is well placed to be on the leading edge of the Fossil Free Culture movement in Canada.

Museum of History Protest
Supporters demonstrate outside the Museum of History at the launch of the Right Side of History campaign in early April.

CAPP & the Canadian Museum of History

About 5 years ago, the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) (then the Museum of Civilization) was approached by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) — the official lobby group for the biggest oil and gas companies operating in Canada. At the time, CAPP was seeking out sponsorship opportunities in the National Capital Region. An access to information request revealed that CAPP was looking to fund cultural institutions like art galleries and museums close to Parliament Hill, pending they could use those spaces to elevate the profile of Canada’s oil and gas sector.

Within months, the funding partnership was announced by way of a press release issued by the Canadian Museum of History. It was an immediate return on investment for CAPP: they were congratulated as a shining star of corporate philanthropy by the Museum’s own CEO, Mark O’Neill, while also giving CAPP a platform to promote fossil fuel expansion. The resulting press provided cover for CAPP lobbyists who were out lobbying the Harper government to gut Canada’s most precious environmental laws.

The Power of PR

Fossil fuel companies, and industry associations that represent them, cultivate relationships with arts and cultural centers because it helps to create an image of social license for the industry.  This acceptability, becoming increasingly fragile, is necessary for Big Oil to continue to dig, drill, strip mine and frack, pipe, ship and store increasing amounts of oil and gas, despite the worsening climate crisis. It’s not a new tactic — in fact, it’s one taken right from the tobacco industry’s playbook.

It wasn’t that long ago that tobacco companies were seen as respectable sponsors for cultural institutions. But thanks to people powered movement calling out these dirty sponsorships, museums and galleries across the world cut ties to the tobacco industry.

Big Oil must see the same fate if we wish to tackle climate change with the boldness this crisis requires. Half measures or meekness won’t keep +80% of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves in the ground — what climate scientists have deemed necessary to stay within 2°c of global warming.

CAPP Protest
Community members calling on the Museum of History to cut ties with CAPP at the Museum’s Annual General Meeting in April.

We need every corner of society to flex their muscle and stand up to an industry which has knowingly misled the public on climate change, that continues to lobby against climate action in every corner of the planet, and perpetrates human rights abuses around the world. We need all hands on deck, and to use every tool in our toolbox to fight the power of the fossil fuel industry.

The good news?

This shift is underway. Already, over 700 institutions worldwide have heeded the call to cut ties with Big Oil, and the public is starting to clearly see the evil PR genius behind oil sponsorship of arts and cultural institutions. Museums, Art Galleries, and other cultural institutions have been forced to answer the calls by their patrons to end sponsorship deals, divest their assets from fossil fuel companies, or by removing Big Oil CEOs from their boards.

We know that these actions alone won’t stop climate impacts from happening, or bring justice to Indigenous Peoples living near the Alberta tar sands whose water and lands have been destroyed, but it will stir up a critical public conversation about the social acceptability of these companies in our trusted and beloved cultural institutions. In so doing, we strengthen the calls for climate leadership in our political and financial spheres.

How can museum workers get involved in the fossil free culture movement?

Community members calling on the Museum of History to cut ties with CAPP for the launch of the Right Side of History campaign in April 2017.

You’ve heard about the role the personal agency of museum workers can play in Joy Davis’ blog post. You know from Naomi Grattan’s post that museum leaders can take an activist stance. And you’ve read about how to get your Board behind you by writing and approving an Advocacy Policy. With this knowledge & these tools, museum workers can get involved in the fossil free culture movement:

If that strikes a cord, start organizing your people. This divestment guide is a great resource if you’re not sure where to get started. It was made for students in mind, but most of the content is translatable to other campaigns and movement spaces!

In an era of climate change, we must stand united against the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to co-opt cultural institutions. We must send a big message that the age of big oil deceiving the public for its own gain is over. supports a global grassroots climate movement that hold leaders accountable to science and justice. This global movement works together to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects, take money out of the companies that are heating up the planet, and build 100% clean energy solutions that work for all. We believe in a just, prosperous, and equitable world built with the power of ordinary people. If you want to support‘s campaign to have the Museum of History cut ties with Big Oil, you can sign the petition at: and contact Katie to learn more.

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  1. dcworts

    Museums being caught up in the ethical implications of accepting sponsorship money from companies and industries aiming to garner a “social license to operate” is not new – but it seems to ebb and flow over time. I recall some large public protests in the late ’70s when a forestry company/industry had sponsored a large, travelling Canadian landscape show (I think it was a Vancouver Art Gallery show). It certainly struck a chord with many museums and artists. Not too long after, the same was true of the tobacco industry sponsoring all sorts of things – museums, sports, community events, music and more. Now the fossil fuel industry is, deservedly, in the spotlight.

    For me, this is not only an opportunity to take an important ethical stand for museums, but also an opportunity to become creative about where our sector is going into the future. Given the pattern that exists with museums and sponsorship in recent decades, I wonder if, after stating its unwillingness to be supported by the fossil fuel industry, it is not time to take a big step back and ask ourselves how we can change the system that keeps generating this problem of economic dependence on unethical money. By this I mean that museums are habitually in need of money – and they generate relatively little money themselves, except through the presumed largesse of governments and donors/sponsors. And so we are vulnerable to simply ending up in the same situation again – with expensive exhibits and a short-fall of money. Perhaps we can rethink the basic ‘enterprise model’ for museums (and I am using this term instead of the more common term ‘business model’, because we don’t want to simply try to adopt traditional business practices, which has been a trend in museums over recent decades). Can we imagine a way to generate public engagement and community impacts that add to quality of life and wellbeing, by shifting our modus operandi? Are there ways, perhaps outside-the-box ideas that go beyond exhibits and on-site programs, in which to engage both likely and unlikely partners that actually share goals and values?

    Rather than simply taking up an ‘anti’ position, is there a way to achieve the goal of distancing museums from oil companies, while generating effective cultural shifts towards a sustainable future? The complexities of cultural change are formidable, but what sector is better positioned than museums to really think this through? I was looking at the Happy Museum Project website today (an innovative, capacity-building museum initiative in the UK) and saw the idea being floated of a “Museum of Fossil Fuels”. I haven’t gone into it in depth yet, but at the top level it is a pretty fascinating initiative. There seems to be a strong message that the fossil fuel industries have been at the heart of most of the advancements in human knowledge and ability that are associated with the past couple centuries. The suggestion is that the museum acknowledges the role of fossil fuels for what it is and the achievements it has brought. There is clearly a need for the museum to state clearly that the industry can no longer serve human or planetary needs, but that hopefully, it can contribute innovation and resources to new solutions as it transforms itself. This museum seems to see the history of the oil industry containing insights and innovations that need to be honoured and understood for what they are, as well as to be applied to the building of a sustainable future. Reading about this museum triggered for me a more nuanced approach to museums as facilitators of cultural change. Such an approach might have much more far-reaching impacts than simply to demonize the existing hydrocarbon industry (an industry that I have been struggling against for 20 years). What do others think here?

  2. Katie Perfitt

    I really appreciate this thoughtful dialogue, and I’m looking forward to seeing further response to this post and to pt. 2.

    What I want to explore in this is how the Museum of History is positioned well to be able to make a bold statement like this. This sponsorship is actually quite small in relation to this museums very larg budget. It’s a drop in the bucket. Not every museum is in this kind of position, I understand. And that’s part of why I think the Museum of History has a responsibility to show this kind of leadership.

    Cutting ties with an institution like CAPP — a clear villain in the face of climate change — would be a very appropriate statement about what we don’t want — organizations that lobby against climate action and Indigenous rights, that have spent years trying to mislead the public on the science of climate change, and had a hand in dismantling some of Canada’s most important environmental laws). It also presents itself as an opportunity to clearly articulate the future we must rapidly transition to — that’s one where we significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and show respect and allyship with Indigenous peoples.

    The power of divestment (and I consider this within the realm of fossil fuel divestment) is the symbolism. It has a real impact because it can be perspective shifting for audiences. The power to do that is so important in the era of a climate crisis, because the shift we have to make is tranformative.

    I think we need to explore many approaches to tackling the climate crisis, and I don’t think these options are mutually exclusive. I love so many of the ideas that have been coming through this blog. I also think we loose an opportunity if we discount this tactic. Divestment in it’s different forms has made critical gains in both the conversation around climate, the economics of it: exposing the true cost and risk of the energy system on which we currently rely, and pushing forward the next energy economy.

  3. Amy Hetherington

    I’d love to see, right now, the museums that can cut all types with oil sponsorship. But as Katie says, some heritage organisations would have a much tougher time with that, because it funds quite a lot. It’s easier said than done to go ‘we don’t want to associate with this anymore, but not doing so means losing 50% of our budget’. But for museums that can, I think it should be a main priority. That’s a message to oil companies right there. It’s also a message to governments that museums need other funding sources that are ethical. But if everyone continues to rely on oil sponsorship, nothing will change.

  4. bridgetmck

    I just want to respond to your helpful suggestion for a more nuanced approach of exposing and exploring, rather than demonising the fossil fuel industries. I’ve been involved in the UK’s campaign coalition on this issue, for a few years, Art Not Oil ( and am now supporting a new initiative called Culture Unstained. My role has mostly been in the nuanced end of things, doing background research, exploring the ethical issues, and developing and promoting alternative models of business/finance/partnership so that divestment and ethical sponsorship become financially and socially beneficial as well as ethical. There has been a bit of playful ‘demonising’ in the creative actions against oil sponsorship, and sometimes it has made me feel a bit uncomfortable – but then it is meant to be disturbing. Fossil fuel companies have known about the globally catastrophic impacts (genocide and ecocide on an unthinkable scale) of their industry for 35 years, yet have ploughed billions of dollars into disruptive research, lobbying, advertising and sponsorship deals that deny the realities of climate change and that provide them with a ‘social licence to operate’. We as ecological activists don’t have those billions of dollars and control of the media, and we have to try different approaches to break through, ranging from calm investigation to lively creative protest. Another dimension Art Not Oil members aim to expose is the extreme social injustice (extrajudicial murders, imprisonment, land grabbing, local ecocides and civilian deaths in oil wars etc etc) that takes place in relation to extraction sites. Ethical policies of museums often state that they don’t collaborate with organisations that do such things, but turn a blind eye to fossil fuel companies that perpetuate or conceal their involvement in these ravages on indigenous people and their land. One thing we are very clear about is that we never intend to harm the cultural institution – always focusing on the fossil fuel sponsor, highlighting how much the sponsor benefits for what are very small donations. I think in the UK we have a different context where we have expected cultural organisations to be publicly funded, with corporate sponsorship only as an added extra, and the change in our funding system, combined with unliveably low salaries and zero hours contracts, has felt quite rapid and brutal. There are three areas of focus for those of us frustrated by this whole situation: ending oil sponsorship (as oil is the epitome of unethical sponsors); ending unethical sponsorship (e.g. arms industry or general); returning to a situation where culture is properly supported by public finance. I’ve argued sometimes for more engagement with fossil fuel sponsors, to converse with them about their impacts and mission, but it’s always been hard to know how to go about it.

  5. d

    This is really frustrating

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