Petroleus (all images courtesy of BP or not BP?)

LONDON — On Tuesday, November 20, activist group BP or not BP? gate-crashed the VIP opening of the British Museum’s exhibition Troy: Myth and Reality and staged a protest performance drawing attention to the museum’s links with the oil company, British Petroleum (BP). 

The protestors stayed behind after the museum’s closing time and dressed up as five Trojan-inspired “living statues”: Helen of Troy, Achilles, Zeus, Athena, and a fifth character of their own invention, “Petroleus,” who donned a robe resembling an oil spill and a shield bearing the BP logo. As guests of the event arrived, the activists processed to the main entrance of the museum where they were drenched in oil by Petroleus. In addition to the five “living statues,” there was a Greek Chorus made up of around 15 people who chanted the slogan: “We foresee the fall of BP!” 

A spokesperson from the British Museum told Hyperallergic: “The reception went ahead as planned and guests were able to see and enjoy the exhibition. 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.” 

Over the last year, the British Museum has come under increasing pressure to cut ties with the fossil fuel multinational. Out of the 57 rebel performances organized by BP or Not BP? to date, 37 have taken place at the British Museum, which is one of the four beneficiaries of BP’s five-year £7.5 million (~$9 million) donation supporting British cultural institutions, a commitment which is supposed to continue until 2022. 


BP or Not BP? accuses BP of using arts institutions to whitewash its reputation, while continuing its oil and gas expansion. In a statement emailed to Hyperallergic, Stephen Corrigan from BP or not BP? said: “According to the climate science, we cannot afford to build any new oil or gas infrastructure if we want a decent chance of avoiding climate breakdown — and yet BP is planning to spend tens of billions of pounds on these kinds of projects over the next ten years.” 

In July, a trustee of the British Museum, Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian novelist and political commentator, stepped down from the board, citing the museum’s relationship with BP as one of the reasons for her departure. In an  op-ed published in the London Review of Books, she said she regretted the institution’s lack of engagement with “the legitimate and pressing concerns of young people across the planet.” Soon after, British museum workers issued a statement in solidarity with Soueif.


Other BP-sponsored institutions in the UK have recently announced their decision to sever ties with the oil company. Last month the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) pulled out of its sponsorship deal with BP, and a week ago the National Galleries of Scotland declared that it would no longer host the annual BP Portrait Award, citing the “climate emergency” as the reason for refusing further funding from BP. 

In response to yesterday’s protest, a spokesperson for BP told Hyperallergic: “We do understand that people have concerns about this kind of support and it’s right that those questions are raised. Without external support much programming and other major projects would not happen. This exhibition focuses on Troy as the ultimate universal story about the human condition. It features compelling characters and timeless themes: heroism and violence; love and loss; hope and despair, addressing themes as relevant now as they were 3000 years ago.”


Continuing the Greco-Trojan theme, BP or Not BP? has crowd-funded the construction of a gigantic Trojan Horse, which they will bring to the museum for another protest against the museum’s acceptance of sponsorship from BP for the Troy exhibition. The protest, which takes place on February 8, 2020, is being described by the group as their largest direct action yet. 

Naomi Polonsky is a London-based curator, art critic, and translator. She studied at the University of Oxford and the Courtauld Institute of Art and has experience working at the Hermitage Museum and Tate...

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