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The director of Tate, Maria Balshaw, has spoken out about BP’s sponsorship deal with the British Museum (BM), saying that “the public has moved to a position where they think it [the BP arrangement] is inappropriate”.

In an interview with the Observer newspaper about her new book, Gathering of Strangers: Why Museums Matter (Tate Publishing), Balshaw also addressed the controversy over Tate Britain’s 2021-22 show Hogarth and Europe following a wave of criticism focused on the wall labels in the exhibition written by contemporary commentators, which one critic described as “wokeish drivel”.

Balshaw is asked in the interview about sponsorship because according to the Observer, she is “critical of the British Museum’s new £50m partnership with BP” in her new book. Balshaw replies: “I’ve never known a time when we weren’t concerned about funding; that’s a normal part of life as a museum director…. But the issue the BM faces in taking BP’s money is that the public has moved to a position where they think it is inappropriate, and there’s a dissonance between wishing to be seen as extremely sensitive in the way we relate to other cultures and careful about the resources we consume, and then taking money from a company that has not yet demonstrated whether it’s really committed to changing. The new director of the British Museum [Nicholas Cullinan] is going to have to deal with a lot of public dismay.”

The money from oil and gas giant BP is due to kickstart fundraising for the museum’s ambitious masterplan, which would upgrade the building and redisplay the collection. The decision to accept the £50m sponsorship deal has caused concern among its trustees, however. The British Museum declined to comment.

Balshaw also said she has changed her mind about the Hogarth show. “[The book] helped me firm up my thoughts on things where our intention was good, but we didn’t get it right, like the Hogarth show. We were too didactic, and we’ve learned from that. I’ve started to understand that the problem with the [museum] paradigm is that you’re supposed to be the authority. Actually, what’s more useful is not to be frightened of your expertise while also accepting that others will want different positions and views, too,” she said.

The exhibition presented William Hogarth’s work in a “fresh light”, with his art seen for the first time alongside works by continental contemporaries in Venice, Paris and Amsterdam, such as Jean-Siméon Chardin of France (1699-1779). The decision by Tate management to include commentaries on Hogarth’s paintings by several non-curatorial figures, including the artists Lubaina Himid and Sonia E. Barrett, inflamed some UK national newspaper art critics (Waldemar Januszczak of The Sunday Times said the problem with the show was “the collapse… of useful scholarship and its replacement by wokeish drivel).

Balshaw added in the interview that her favourite piece in the Tate collection is Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View installation (1991), highlighting also the anticipated exhibition due to open next year at Tate Modern dedicated to the 20th-century Aboriginal artist Emily Kam Kngwarray (10 July 2025-13 January 2026). She also discussed her background, which is described as working-class, saying that she was “encouraged to read lots” and regularly taken to the theatre.

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