LONDON — The irony of oil company BP sponsoring the British Museum’s current exhibition Sunken Cities will have been lost on few. Advertisements branded with BP’s logo dotting London depict Egyptian cities submerged by rising seas — poignant reminders of the losses to come in our increasingly watery world. The Museum is set to receive roughly a quarter of BP’s £7.5 million (~$9.7 million) in cultural sponsorships between 2017 and 2022 (the rest will go to the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Shakespeare Company, and Royal Opera House). Yesterday, theatrical protest group BP or not BP? led almost 200 people in a “splashmob,” an ocean-themed flashmob inside the British Museum’s iconic Great Court, protesting the Museum’s recent renewal of the controversial sponsorship.
Protesters arrived decked in undersea regalia, complete with shell-encrusted props, glitter, and a whole ocean of blue. The ensuing spectacle included a skit about mermaid gentrification set to the tune of Disney’s “Under the Sea,” call-and-response chants with the public, and choreographed clashes between “BP Pirates” and ocean-dwellers. A procession around the courtyard featured a surprise finale: a giant “BP Kraken,” smuggled in parts through the tight security then unfurled inside. The flailing, corporate-branded beast tried to devour a suited actor representing the Museum, who had to be “saved” by the public. The Kraken was then defeated by a “whirlpool” of protest songs. The tone was one of playful yet passionate creative disobedience. The Museum responded with increased security but no other interference. In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson said: “We respect other people’s right to express their views and allow peaceful protest onsite at the British Museum.”
“If the British Museum’s new director [Hartwig Fischer] thinks he can shove this deeply unpopular decision through quickly without damage to the museum’s reputation, he’s wrong,” protest leader Jess Worth told Hyperallergic after Sunday’s performance. “Today we pulled off our most ambitious performance yet with a cast of hundreds and a giant sea monster — the movement for fossil free culture clearly isn’t going away.” She added: “By 2022, oil companies will be a dying breed, and if the British Museum is still displaying BP’s logo it will look even more hopelessly out of touch than it already does.”
Fellow performer Danny Chivers highlighted the perceived hypocrisy of the sponsorship deal. “A Sunken Cities exhibition sponsored by BP is almost beyond parody,” he said in a statement before Sunday’s performance. “This company is actively lobbying against climate legislation, blocking clean energy, and pushing to drill in ever-riskier places for ever-dirtier forms of fossil fuel, from tar sands to deep offshore rigs to the Arctic. But scientists tell us we need to leave most of these fuels in the ground to have any chance of avoiding runaway climate change, including sea level rises that would threaten dozens of the world’s biggest cities within our lifetimes.”
Chivers voiced the group’s opinion that the sponsorship is “green-washing. … It’s a tool that BP uses to falsely present itself as a ‘responsible’ company and distract us from its real activities. By letting BP sponsor the sunken cities of the past, the British Museum is helping to create the sunken cities of the all-too-near future.”
On Sunday, reactions from passersby spanned the gamut from supportive to angered to just plain bemused. Children entered into the playful spirit of the “splashmob,” while adults mostly stood back as the aquatic-themed mayhem unfolded. “I certainly agree with what they’re protesting about,” a Londoner in the crowd told me. “BP is responsible for damaging the environment so it’s pretty hypocritical of them to be supporting cultural events like the Sunken Cities exhibition — it just doesn’t make sense.”
Others responded less favorably to the protest. “I’m from Texas, the land of oil,” a passing tourist said. “I think it’s perfectly fine that BP sponsor the museum — the company is giving something back to the public. In the US we don’t have as many museums like this, and in those we do have, it’s $20 just to walk through the door. If sponsorship means that you can come in paying only a donation, that’s great. For companies to donate to museums to make them accessible to people like us is fantastic.”
The unsanctioned “splashmob” was the group’s 20th performance in the Museum. BP or not BP? and other members of the the Art Not Oil coalition have actively opposed the sponsorship since 2009; last April, they published an extensive report into what they call BP’s “corrupting influence” over cultural institutions. Last week, Greenpeace also took action against BP’s renewed sponsorship.
In March, BP cited “a challenging business environment” for the cessation of its 26-year sponsorship of the Tate, but as yet show no signs of dropping the deal with the British Museum. Polls suggest one in two Londoners think the oil giant’s sponsorship should cease.
It remains to be seen whether public feeling will affect future policy, but for now the official message is unequivocal. “The British Museum relies on external support in order to plan our future temporary exhibitions and public programming,” the institution’s statement explained. “We are grateful to all our supporters for enabling us to bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely popular exhibitions and their associated public programs.”