LONDON — On October 27, a little after 2 pm, the British Museum saw a modest, yet affecting, protest in its exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent. A small group of artists from protest group BP or not BP? began unpacking props and distributing flyers, clad in bright red shirts reading “I OBJECT TO BP.” Since 2012, the group has been staging eye-catching performances to protest British oil giant BP’s sponsorship of major UK cultural institutions, including the Royal Shakespeare Company. This Saturday, their aim was to challenge the British Museum’s continuing partnership with BP, a controversial financial sponsor of the institution.
I object utilizes the British Museum’s vast collection to show how protest spans time and space with “intriguing objects that explore the idea of dissent, subversion, and satire.” Among the galleries are Turkish shadow puppets from 1820–1920 which satirize politicians, and, of course, Banksy’s prank at the British Museum — a fabricated cave painting that was left inside the galleries for three days before staff realized it didn’t belong there.
On Saturday, the seven protestors from BP or not BP? approached visitors, explaining: “We’re staging a protest inside the protest exhibition today, because we think there’s quite an irony in that BP is sponsoring this museum when they so often squash protest.”
Four of them held objects and explanatory text of their own. One was a photo of the Colombian union leader Gilberto Torres, who sued BP for indirect links to his kidnapping. Another was the Morning Star flag used by the independence movement in West Papua, where the Indonesian military crushed protests related to foreign resource extraction. A tear gas canister from Cairo represented BP’s investments in Egypt, whose government has cracked down on dissent. Finally, BP or not BP? member Hannah Boustred was wearing her own protest item: a bright blue vest and bowtie reportedly confiscated by British Museum security staff during a previous performance.
“You kind of have to earn the right to put on the exhibition,” said Danny Chivers, of BP or not BP?
The organization is one of several challenging contended financial entanglements of European institutions. In September, over 40 artists withdrew their work from London’s Design Museum, and put on their own alternative exhibition to protest the museum’s relationship with weapons manufacturer Leonardo. Art Not Oil has been protesting BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery for years. In Paris, Libérons le Louvre has demonstrated against Total’s sponsorship of the Louvre.
There have been some successes along the way. Following six years of demonstrations by Liberate Tate, BP finally ended its sponsorship of the Tate in 2016. And it was recently announced that the National Gallery is no longer being sponsored by Shell.
A major target of these protests has been the British Museum, where BP or not BP? has now staged 32 demonstrations. Previous BP or not BP? protests at the British Museum have included a mock funeral and a “splashmob,” or an ocean-themed flashmob whose centerpiece was a kraken.
In the view of BP or not BP?, the BP–British Museum relationship is far from harmless. “BP uses the museum to push its geopolitical position,” said Chivers. He points to the BP sponsorship of an exhibition on ancient Siberia, tied to its oil-drilling ambitions in the Russian Arctic. This exhibition occasioned meetings among Russian and British officials, energy industry representatives, and museum staff. Similarly, a Day of the Dead celebration held at the museum coincided with efforts to achieve oil-drilling leases in Mexico. This is one of a number of events revealing uncomfortably close relationships among museum and BP representatives.
BP’s influence over curatorial decisions and its use of these prestigious cultural links to legitimize its business decisions belie the argument that its sponsorship is benign.
Chivers rejected the argument that these museums need funding from large multinationals to continue their programming. He says that arts funding cuts in the UK disproportionately affect small local museums, which aren’t the ones being courted by oil companies. “[BP’s] not interested in sponsoring the local museum in Stoke-on-Trent,” he said.
The group believes that the small sliver of income received from BP should be replaced by government funding or, if necessary, “ethical sponsorship.”
On Saturday, the response from the British Museum’s security team was muted. It took over an hour for exhibition staff to realize that the protestors weren’t actually a part of the exhibition. Even then, as more security staffers entered the space and asked the activists about their activities, the mood was gentle.
One staffer said, looking perplexed, “I don’t think there’s anything we can do.” He worried that the protest might be a distraction for the paying visitors, but conceded that no visitors had complained. A senior member of security later suggested that ultimately, the protest might be good publicity for the exhibition and that they should wait it out. Overall, the position was of slightly bewildered tolerance.
A British Museum spokesperson later commented to Hyperallergic:
The British Museum respects other people’s right to express their views and allows peaceful protest onsite at the Museum as long as there is no risk to the Museum’s collection, staff or visitors. The long-term support provided by BP allows the Museum to plan its programming in advance and to bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely popular exhibitions and their associated public programmes. Over 4.2 million people have enjoyed an activity at the Museum supported by BP.
For the BP or not BP? activists, this attitude allowed for plenty of discussion with museumgoers. As protestor Ali Warrington explained during the performance on Saturday, “Many people might not make the connection why it’s so inappropriate for a publicly funded museum to take money from an oil corporation.”
Some conversations centered around corporate sponsorship for arts funding in general. The I object exhibition, for instance, has prominent branding for its sponsor, Citi. Plenty of visitors were surprised to learn just how small BP’s financial contribution is to the British Museum (less than .5% of the museum’s income, according to BP or not BP?). While many visitors supported BP or not BP?’s opposition to the fossil fuel industry, some questioned the world’s ability to wean itself off oil.
Chivers said that the group’s aim is to build on each previous protest: “Every time, we try to push the boundaries a bit further in terms of what we can get away with.” This is tailored to the specific circumstances. Sometimes that might be a noisy flashmob with massive props. Other times, as on Saturday, the demonstration was less in-your-face.
The group had prepared plenty of contingency plans for the event and initially expected to remain fixed in place in a corner of the exhibition space. But as they were mostly left alone by security, they felt free to wander around engaging with people. Chivers explained that their ultimate target is the museum’s trustees and management: “The best way to embarrass them is to show how much support there is for our position among the visitors and the staff.”
As the activists left just before closing time, they sang “I object to BP / make museums fossil free.” It was an amiable ending to a polite few hours of protest.