For over two hours on Saturday, February 16, around 350 activists wearing all-black occupied the British Museum for a massive protest. Organized by campaign group BP or not BP?, they were protesting the final week of the popular exhibition I am Ashburnipal, king of the world, king of Assyria, which contains many treasured objects from the region that is now called Iraq. The British oil and gas company BP is the main sponsor of the exhibition, although the museum also charges a ticket fee of £17 (~$22).
The demonstration started with hundreds of protestors massed inside the British Museum’s iconic Great Court, facing visitors. They chanted slogans like “No war, no warming” and “Drop BP.” They handed out flyers and talked with visitors about the purposes of the protest, and they frequently sang this haunting refrain:
We are the people rising
When oil burns and armies grow
You stole our past and future
It’s time for you to go, go, go
Time for you to go
The activists proceeded to fan out around the exterior Reading Room, unfurling a long series of banners that had to be smuggled into the museum, which wrapped around the full space, measuring over 200 meters in total.
After rolling out the banners during the protest, the activists then moved into one corner of the Great Court, sitting and chanting. Eventually, they filed out to stand outside the main entrance. To the assembled protesters, activist Ilaf Moslawy, who was dressed as a BP official, read a poem she’d written from that fictional viewpoint. One refrain reads:
I am BP
What I represent goes beyond me
Government, museum, petroleum
What does it mean to be British?
Stolen land, stolen culture, stolen climate…
Moslawy was born in Iraq and has lived in the UK for 10 years, after her family sought asylum in The Netherlands. She doesn’t believe that most Brits are aware of the full extent of the country’s involvement in Iraqi conflict. Speaking with Hyperallergic after the protest, she said: “Your taxes are paying towards wars all over the world, and they’re killing people in Iraq even today. And your government has allowed people to exploit Iraqis.”
Saturday’s event was not BP or not BP?’s first protest of the Ashburnipal exhibition. In November, activists dressed up as BP employees and drank fake oil from champagne flutes to protest the oil giant’s exploitation of natural resources in Iraq.
BP or not BP? campaigner Nicki Carter told Hyperallergic that smaller protest was intended as a precursor to Saturday’s main protest. She says they wanted to do something big to roughly coincide with the 16th anniversary of the massive protests against the Iraq War. That 2003 demonstration was called the largest peace rally in British history, and Saturday’s protest was the largest to ever target the British Museum.
The protest was accompanied by a few satellite events. BP or not BP? has curated a rival exhibition at the P21 Gallery, near the British Museum. Running until March 2, this alternative exhibition of Iraqi artists is called I am British Petroleum: king of exploitation, king of justice. And prior to Saturday’s main demonstration, some of the BP or not BP? activists circulated through the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery, quizzing visitors about the origins of the artifacts.
Carter explained that this round of protests was intended to gather different activism concerns: environmental campaigners opposed to the expansion of fossil fuels; arts funding activists who want major institutions to reject unsavory corporate money; and Iraqi groups troubled by British contributions to conflict in Iraq.
The intention of the protest was to display these concerns in an eye- and ear-catching way. BP or not BP?’s protests are like performance art pieces. Their ptevious protests at the British Museum have involved leading an alternative tour of stolen goods, dissenting to an exhibition about dissent, and staging an ocean-themed flashmob. The element of playful performance is key to the BP or not BP? protests, which often involve theatrical elements like singing or acting. “It is about celebrating the arts,” said Carter. She and her fellow activists are lovers of the arts, “which is why it’s such a shame when they’re co-opted in this way.”
There were mixed responses from the public visiting the museum. Joshua Kaggie, a physicist from Utah who lives in Cambridge, expressed a kind of ambivalence that was common among other visitors who weren’t previously aware of the anti-BP movement. “I guess the issue is you’d want to avoid a conflict of interest,” he commented. He would worry about the British Museum needing to kowtow to corporate interests like BP, but says, “personally I’d rather have more money going to the arts wherever it comes from.”
Other visitors worried about the ability of other countries to preserve valuable objects. One expressed some sympathy for the repatriation of artifacts to their original sites, but noted that she would feel sad to lose the opportunity to see them all in one place. According to Carter, these attitudes are encouraged by the British Museum without being well-founded: “They have this kind of paternalistic idea that we can protect these objects better than the people who owned them originally.”
A British Museum spokesperson stressed that “the claims that have been made about the objects in the Ashurbanipal exhibition being looted are not true.” In a statement, the museum wrote:
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.
The objects from the British Museum’s collection in I am Ashurbanipal exhibition were collected and excavated with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman government, who gave permission for the objects to be exported.
We have very good relationships with our colleagues in Iraq, collaborating with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. In response to the Iraq War, we are training 50 Iraqi archaeologists in emergency heritage management through the Iraq Scheme which is featured in the exhibition. The British Museum collaborates with Museum partners from across the globe, sharing skills, expertise and lending objects.
Whether or not visitors are likely to pressure the British Museum, Carter said that BP or not BP? is determined to escalate with each protest. Unlike the Tate Britain, which ended its controversial relationship with BP in 2017, “the British Museum is so stubborn.”