This morning, November 6, activist theatre group BP or not BP? gathered at the British Museum, just outside of the I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria exhibition, which opens November 8. The protest actors dressed as corporate BP employees and were accompanied by additional protesters. The action occurred in parallel to the exhibition’s private viewing for journalists.
The British Museum’s latest exhibition of ancient Assyrian objects from Iraq provided the perfect platform for BP or not BP?’s 33rd performance within the museum, where they chanted slogans like, “British Museum, we’ll keep coming back, no BP logos on your stolen artifacts!” (Just last week, the sale of an Assyrian relief at Christie’s raised similar concerns about the pillaging of Iraqi artifacts.)
BP was the primary sponsor of the British Museum’s Assyria exhibition but provides less than 0.5% of the British Museum’s annual income, which they say can be easily replaced by newfound, ethical donors.
“The British Museum is facilitating the whitewashing of BP’s actions in Iraq by allowing the company to sponsor of an exhibition that presents it as a benevolent guardian and gatekeeper of Iraqi heritage,” the group said in a press release.
Performers dressed as BP staff sipped oil-tainted champagne as a satirical protest of the fuel giant’s misconduct in Iraq and exploitation of the nation’s natural resources, urging the British Museum to end its partnership with the company.
They traipsed into the atrium with official-looking banners boasting the BP logo and slogans like, “BP: Making You History” and “Sponsoring the past, destroying the future.” One, in particular, cited a statement from UK government documents released in 2011, proving that in 2003 BP officials boasted, “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.”
BP or not BP? quips in the faux banner, “We believe our empire will last for ever. Or at least until the climate change from our oil-driven business plan reaches truly catastrophic levels. Enjoy the exhibition!”
Accompanying protesters (many of whom are Iraqi themselves according to BP or not BP?) held up signs citing statistics about BP’s involvement in Iraq. The oil sector accounts for 89% of the state budget and 99% of Iraq’s export revenues, but only 1% of jobs, while water pollution in Basra has reached crisis levels.
A BP or not BP? representative said:
Both the British Museum and BP should be ashamed of this exhibition, and its sponsorship. BP has played a key role in the war and in environmental destruction in Iraq. This has fuelled the social and economic inequality that Iraqis continue to suffer from and protest against.
The Museum must end this sponsorship and also address how it has sourced the pieces for this exhibition. We won’t allow Iraqi culture to be exploited especially from those that have contributed to such devastation.
In response, the British Museum offered an official statement:
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.
Today’s performance was part of a growing wave of criticism of oil sponsorship of the arts. BP or not BP? is a member of the Art Not Oil coalition, a major player in the wave across Europe to divest from oil sponsorship in favor of ethical partnerships. In 2016, after six years of protest by Liberate Tate, BP finally ended its sponsorship of the Tate. Recently, Culture Unstained discovered Shell had ended its partnership with the National Gallery. Just last week, BP or not BP? held an action at the British Museum.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.