Art activist group BP or not BP? yesterday staged a double intervention at the British Museum to protest BP’s sponsorship of Sunken cities, a new exhibition showcasing artifacts from two ancient, submerged Egyptian ports. Part of the Art Not Oil coalition, the protestors have since 2012 been calling for the museum — among other UK institutions — to end its sponsorship deal with the oil giant, but this new exhibition for them captures every misgiving they have about the relationship: “BP driving climate change, doing dodgy deals with repressive regimes, and using the museum to distract attention from or even legitimize both,” as BP or Not BP?’s Jess Worth wrote to Hyperallergic in an email. The actions occurred on the day of the exhibition’s press and VIP openings, taking the form of a large installation showcasing crude oil from the Gulf Coast as well as a performance later that afternoon that involved performers sitting on the museum floor, drenched in water and chanting, “We do not accept BP’s vision of the future.”
Sunken cities focuses on what the museum calls “the lost cities” of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, which both lay underwater near the mouth of the Nile for over a thousand years before a French archaeological team began its excavations. What led to their sinking were natural phenomena such as rising sea levels and tidal wave-causing earthquakes — the same risks coastal cities face today, thanks to climate change, which the fossil fuel industry drives.
“We are always concerned that the museum is allowing BP a credibility and legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve by associating itself so prominently with great art and culture,” BP or Not BP?’s Jess Worth told Hyperallergic in an email. “But this exhibition is beyond the pale … it’s beyond parody.”
Worth cites BP’s history of doing business with the Egyptian government under the repressive regimes of Mubarak, Morsi, and el-Sisi — deals that make the company one of the country’s largest foreign investors. BP’s website describes that it is “actively exploring in the Nile Delta and investing to add production from existing discoveries.” When you consider the fact that cities in the Delta region such as Alexandria, Damietta, and Port Said are currently sinking from climate change, BP’s sponsorship of Sunken cities becomes even more paradoxical and problematic.
For its interventions, BP or Not BP? highlighted the cases of human rights violations under the political systems whose leaders BP has struck deals with during its 50 years of operating in Egypt. To represent the 340 cases of enforced disappearance last year under the leadership of el-Sisi, the protestors in the morning created a circle of 340 black stones. The rocks surrounded a plinth supporting a bottle of crude oil and a teargas cartridge originally used in Cairo to represent the weapons employed to repress the 2011 Tahrir Square protests. Worth points out that in March 2014, a few months before the documentation of the crackdowns began, BP had signed a $12 billion dollar energy deal in Egypt.
The protestors left around 1pm after holding a moment of silence to show solidarity with those in Egypt who are resisting el-Sisi’s regime, but they returned to the Great Court during the exhibition’s evening VIP launch. While someone read out a list of cities likely to be underwater over the coming decades if the oil industry does not change its habits, a man acting as a BP representative poured water on 10 chanting performers. The list, based on projected sea levels recently reported in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, included one of the Solomon Islands, threatened to sink this year; Malé, the Maldives’ capital, at risk of submergence in 2020; and Amsterdam, under water in possibly 2025. To represent the projected flooding of London in 2060, the BP character poured water over his own head, concluding the performance.
According to Worth, museum staff attempted to divert the attentions of the VIP guests, which included representatives from BP and the Egyptian government. As the Evening Standard reported, however, trustees in attendance — including Grayson Perry — remained well aware of the actions and apparently found it difficult to hear the museum’s speeches. Police arrived later, but by then, the protestors were on their way out.
Part of BP or Not BP’s outrage also stems from BP’s framing of the exhibition, as exemplified in a problematic BP-written promotional wall text.
“As fellow explorers of the Nile Delta, we feel a strong affinity with the maritime archaeologists who have discovered the sunken cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus,” the plaque reads. “Our support for this special exhibition is part of BP’s wider commitment to enhancing people’s lives, in the UK and beyond. Our aim is to enable more people to experience the very best in art and culture.”
Besides demonstrating BP’s flawed logic that searching for oil and gas creates a bond between it and archaeologists, the text illustrates how contributing a likely small amount to museum funding buys it a large claim to cultural philanthropy and stewardship.
BP or Not BP? is not calling on the British Museum to halt Sunken Cities, but the group is hoping the museum faces increased pressure to not renew its five-year sponsorship deal with BP, which is currently under discussion and scheduled to conclude next year. Hyperallergic has reached out to the museum but did not receive comment.
“For BP and Egypt, Sunken cities is an extension of this brutal business relationship, facilitated by the British Museum,” Worth told Hyperallergic. “This is very clear in BP and the Egyptian government’s communications around the exhibition. So we feel the museum will continue to be complicit in BP’s carbon-intensive, rights-abusing business activities until it ends its sponsorship deal.”
Yesterday’s intervention also brightens the spotlight on BP ethics in relation to its cultural partnerships, which have recently come under close scrutiny. As Hyperallergic previously reported, Art Not Oil has released internal documents of correspondence between the oil giant and its partner institutions that suggest myriad instances in which BP infringed on its role of sponsor to influence museum operations.