Contested Sponsors: Theorizing Big Oil in Canadian Museums

Today’s Guest Post is by Camille-Mary Sharp, a second-year Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Information (iSchool), University of Toronto, and a Museum Studies program graduate. Her ongoing doctoral research examines corporate sponsorship of culture, with a focus on the relationship between Big Oil and Canada’s national museums. Here she shares her current thinking and welcomes your comments below.

 With the expansion of the fields of museum studies and institutional critique, the last few decades have seen behind-the-scenes relationships between museums and corporate sponsors increasingly scrutinized. This past year, numerous news headlines addressed controversial sponsorship agreements in museums across the globe.

  • In Canada, thousands of people signed a petition calling for the Canadian Museum of History to cut its ties with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a powerful oil lobby group (read Katie Perfitt’s recent post on this topic in the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice Blog).
  • In the UK, activists recently mounted a paper installation mimicking an ice crack along the floors of the British Museum to protest BP’s sponsorship of a historical exhibition about Siberia—where the oil giant is currently extracting vast amounts of natural resources.
Credit: Ashitha Nagesh, 2017

The public’s current focus on the finances of our cultural institutions follows many decades of reliance upon complex funding structures to support programs and exhibitions in the public sector. Since the 1970s, sponsorship has become an essential part of museum operations and has been accompanied by what some scholars call the commercialization of museums, manifested through the expansion of museum gift shops, restaurants, and corporate marketing strategies.[1]

While a wide range of corporations sponsor museums, oil companies like Shell and BP are among the most prominent funders of museums worldwide. With several governments and financial institutions having recently committed to divesting from the oil industry, oil sponsorship of culture is at a critical juncture.

Discussions of oil sponsorship, both within and outside of academia, must be wary of the kind of sweeping generalizations that much of museum studies theory has tried to dismantle in the last two decades.

Dismissing all money as “dirty money” (a common argument in favour of oil sponsorship), for example, undermines the role of museums in fostering political debate and promoting social justice.

On the other hand, to universally denounce oil sponsorship regardless of context is to ignore the agency of visitors and the ability of museum curators, interpreters, and educators to promote narratives of resistance.

Museums are not monolithic—they can be redundant and continuously affected by internal conflict. Sponsor-museum relations are thus unique and require context-specific frameworks through which to be compellingly critiqued.

American Enterprise Exhibit
Credit: National Museum of American History.

A Three-Tiered Approach to Examining Oil Sponsorship

With this in mind, I propose a three-tiered approach to examine oil sponsorship of museums. This approach considers but expands beyond current museum scholarship on social justice and environmental responsibility:

1. Consider the Context

… or the historical and economic context of a country and its museums. The Canadian Museum of History, for example, is a national museum, which means it is somewhat representative of state interests. The Canadian state, by extension, has always been economically dependent on natural resources. Recall Harold Innis’ “staples thesis” , which implies that the development of infrastructure, government, and social norms are all related to the production of a nation’s staple resource. It should probably be expected that oil, of which Canada is a significant exporter, be an active funder of our cultural institutions. (However, just because it is expected does not mean it should not be critiqued!)

2. Consider Corporate Social Responsibility

… or the common practice of corporations to seek public approval of their operations through philanthropy, sponsorship, or community projects. Sponsorship is directly tied to a corporation’s public image. Any study of sponsorship is faced with deconstructing the layered politics and strategies of a company’s public relations policies.

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3. Consider the Communities Impacted

... or the extensive consideration of the various communities impacted by a sponsor’s operations, whether their experience be positive, negative, or in-between. While many communities have been negatively affected by resource extraction, we should remember that others depend on their employment in the resource economy.

Of course, this approach can be expanded to sponsorship beyond the oil industry.

During your next visit to a museum, I encourage you to keep an eye out for sponsor logos and reflect on the following:

  • Are the sponsor’s interests related to the content of the exhibition?

  • How might the communities represented in the exhibition be affected by the sponsor’s operations?

  • Does the exhibition and its related programming encourage discussions of the sponsor’s industry?

What did you discover?

[1] McClellan, A. (2008). The art museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

camille photo

Camille-Mary Sharp is a second-year Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, and is a graduate of the Master of Museum Studies program. Her Ph.D. research examines corporate sponsorship of culture, with a focus on the relationship between Big Oil and Canada’s national museums. Bridging the fields of critical museology and political economy, Camille-Mary analyzes the convergence of curatorial activism, carbon culture, and environmental and Indigenous narratives in museum exhibitions.

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  1. bridgetmck

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. It’s really encouraging that you’re focusing PhD research on what I think is a very important issue. I have a couple of comments.

    Your opening sentence suggests that the challenge of oil sponsorship of museums arises out of the ‘expansion of the fields of museum studies and institutional critique’. In addition, you also suggest that the challenge is broadly located in the ‘public’. I’m not sure it’s either so clearly located in museology or in the public realm. In my experience, which is focused on the UK, but also having some connections in USA & Canada, this challenge against oil sponsorship has mainly emerged out of networks of political activists who have campaigned against fossil fuel influence across media, sport, the arts and museums more generally. The Art Not Oil coalition formed out of groups such as Rising Tide and Platform, who investigate and campaign against ecocidal industries and actively champion the rights of indigenous people whose lifeways, cultural artefacts and habitats have been destroyed. The example you cite of the ‘BP or not BP’ action in the British Museum in December was one of 100s of actions over the past 10 or more years by this group and others linked to Art Not Oil, and its broader international coalition Fossil Free Culture which is supported by and Greenpeace.

    My second comment relates to your point that we should not ‘universally denounce’ oil sponsorship regardless of context. I’m not sure that such universal denunciation actually happens, except where the activists’ campaigns have been misrepresented. The campaigns and actions are supported by deep contextual research, for example, by Culture Unstained. See, for example, research they have carried out to explain and underpin the recent actions in the British Museum

    When the context is understood, and when people are listened to in places affected most by climate change and fossil fuel extraction, it is usually difficult not to conclude that any instance of cultural sponsorship by oil companies is questionable, if not morally wrong and harmful.

  2. Camille-Mary

    Thank you so much for reading and engaging with my post, Bridget!

    Politically, I definitely agree that cultural sponsorship by oil companies is questionable, and should be critiqued.

    To address your first point about the public realm: many of the recent discussions of oil sponsorship have taken the form of artistic interventions or protest performances, the proliferation of which can be traced to the institutional critique movement. By “public”, I refer to discussions that are taking place outside of academia or museum boardrooms, which is why I view the 100s of actions in the past decade that you mentioned (and their significant news coverage) as an increase in public debate surrounding cultural sponsorship. In this context, I also believe that the overlapping rise of museum studies theory/programs, institutional critique, and public interest in/protest of the funding of museums is noteworthy.

    Regarding your second comment: I applaud such campaigns as Culture Unstained and Liberate Tate for their significant strides and in-depth research. For the purpose of my dissertation, however, I am interested in expanding the debate beyond proving that a practice is “morally wrong”. Borrowing from critical museology, my research asks:

    -How do museum workers, in their daily practices, negotiate the myriad political, economic, institutional, and personal interests in which the cultural production of a museum is embedded?

    -In Canada specifically, how do we reconcile the growing presence of Truth and Reconciliation recommendations in national institutions (including museums) with the continued prevalence of oil interests in Canadian cultural and legal spheres?

    Having had some preliminary conversations with curators in Canadian communities dominated by a resource extractive sector, it would seem that, for the moment, the issue is not black and white.

    Current museum studies discourse has also veered away from the idea that museums are neutral, almost holy, “temple-like” spaces–which is one of the reasons I find the idea of “unstaining” culture and “liberating” museums so interesting.

    I’d love to discuss our respective projects/research further if you’re interested!

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