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LONDON — This weekend, hundreds of people flocked to the British Museum in London for a 51-hour-long protest against the museum’s sponsorship from the oil company, British Petroleum (BP). This is the 40th performance protest at the British Museum organized by the theatrical activist group BP Or Not BP? over the last eight years.
On Friday morning members of BP Or Not BP? brought a four-meter model of a Trojan Horse emblazoned with the BP logo to the British Museum and stationed it in the courtyard, in response to the oil company’s sponsorship of one of the museum’s current exhibitions, Troy: Myth and Reality, which opened last November. Two activists stayed overnight in the wooden horse and the words “BP Must Fall” were projected onto the museum’s façade in a light display.
Since 1996, BP has been a corporate partner of the British Museum providing sponsorship for a range of the museum’s activities, including the construction of the BP Lecture Theatre. Currently it focuses on the museum’s special exhibitions programme. In 2016, the company announced a renewal of its partnership with the museum lasting until 2022.
“Like the legendary Trojan Horse, BP’s sponsorship is not a gift but a cynical way to hide something far more sinister and destructive,” Sarah Horne, a member of BP or not BP? said in a press statement. “And today, we’ll be exposing the true reality of BP’s climate-crashing business, from its unending investment in fossil fuels that we can’t ever afford to burn to its close partnerships with repressive regimes. For too long, the museum has sided with its mega-polluter partner rather than the communities it is meant to represent, many of whom are already experiencing the intensifying impacts of our changing climate.”
Saturday’s mass action — described by BP or not BP? as a “creative takeover” — took place across the museum and featured performances, spoken word, sing-alongs and talks by campaigners from West Papua and Senegal. Protestors dressed as Trojan statues greeted visitors to the museum in the sunny courtyard, handing out leaflets with a timetable of events. Origami swans were scattered throughout the museum adorned with messages such as: “Choose sponsors who care about our future.” BP or not BP? estimated that 1,500 people participated in the protest.
The public takeover ended at around 4:30pm on Saturday with protestors tearing up paper versions of BP’s logo near the museum’s main entrance. However, 40 activists from BP or Not BP? stayed at the museum after closing hours and through the night, taking part in an impromptu durational performance called “Monument” during which they made plaster casts of the arms, legs, and shoulders of other participants.
Museum-goers were divided in their response to the protest. Many visitors continued to attend the Troy exhibition, with some saying that they had no views on BP’s support of the exhibition or corporate museum sponsorship in general. Others voiced their support for the protest. A twenty-something London local, who had come to see the museum’s permanent displays, told Hyperallergic that he thought that the British Museum should be a “standard-bearer for good ethics” and should only accept sponsorship from “ethical and sustainable sources.”
Over the last few years, the British Museum has come under mounting pressure to cut ties with the fossil fuel multinational. Last July, one of its trustees, Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian author and political commentator, announced her resignation, citing the museum’s relationship with BP as one of the reasons for her departure and saying that the funding it provides “is not unattainable elsewhere.”
Soueif was one of the signatories of an open letter, published today by the British Museum branch of the Public and Commercial Services trade union (PCS), in support of the weekend’s protest. It said: “It is not true that we cannot afford to refuse BP’s oil money, in fact we cannot afford to accept it. We call on the Trustees to properly engage with the climate crisis and end BP sponsorship immediately.”
Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, continues to defend the museum’s partnership with BP. In a statement responding to the civil disobedience campaign over the weekend he said:
We share the concerns for the challenges that we all face together as a result of climate change. We address these issues in an innovative way through significant exhibitions and public programming. The British Museum offers for millions of people an extraordinary opportunity to engage with the cultures and histories of humankind. Without external support and sponsorship this would not be possible. Removing this opportunity from the public is not a contribution to solving the climate crisis.
Other BP-sponsored cultural institutions in the UK have recently announced their decision to sever ties with the oil company. In the last few years, Tate and the National Theatre ditched their sponsorship deal with the oil company. Last year the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) followed in their footsteps, while the National Galleries of Scotland announced that it would no longer host the annual BP Portrait Award because of the “climate emergency.” Last week The Guardian revealed that it would ban advertising from fossil fuel companies.