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Protest against Arctic drilling held at the opening of a British Museum exhibition (all photos by Kristian Buus)

This morning, the activist group BP or not BP? held a protest in solidarity with Indigenous Arctic communities during the press preview of a British Museum exhibition, Arctic: culture and climate. The demonstration was part of a day of action convened by the Alaskan Indigenous organizations Defend the Sacred AK and Native Movement in response to the Trump administration’s recent decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.

A masked and socially distanced group of six protesters unveiled three banners at the entrance to the exhibition as journalists arrived at the preview. A pair of banners pointed to the role that two of the museum’s funders, Citibank and the oil titan British Petroleum (BP), have played in furthering Arctic drilling and fossil fuel production.

“We’ve come to the British Museum because, while its new exhibition rightly puts Indigenous people’s perspectives on climate change front and centre, it continues to partner with those that helped create the climate emergency,” Sarah Horne, a member of BP or not BP?, said in the group’s statement.

BP or not BP?, a theatrical protest group committed to challenging fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and culture, was founded in 2012 in response to BP’s backing of the Royal Shakespeare Festival. The festival dropped BP as a sponsor last October; the National Theatre cut its ties with another oil giant, Shell, a few days later.

“There is a clear disconnect between the words and the actions of the museum and it’s time that was addressed,” Horne said.

The group’s central banner featured a design by the Alaskan Indigenous organizations Defend the Sacred AK and Native Movements.

The exhibition Arctic: culture and climate, developed in collaboration with Arctic communities, includes objects and artworks that tell the history of the region and people, with a central focus on the threat of climate change and Indigenous communities’ resilience. The show will open to the public tomorrow, October 22.

Citibank — the sponsor of the exhibition — is the world’s third-largest funder of fossil fuels, according to Rainforest Action Network’s 2020 Fossil Fuel Finance Report. In April of this year, yielding to pressure from Indigenous activists and climate advocates, the bank pledged to stop directly funding Arctic drilling projects. However, Citi continues to provide financial services to some of the biggest oil companies that will likely bid for rights to explore the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge following Trump’s declaration, BP or not BP? notes in a statement.

Meanwhile, the British Museum’s longtime partner BP was the biggest operator in the Alaskan Arctic for 60 years, producing over 13 billion barrels of oil. This summer, the company sold its share of the Prudhoe Bay field and gas producing assets, including its share in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, to the Hilcorp Energy Company for $5.6 billion.

But “this doesn’t mean that BP is now free from its responsibilities for its impacts in the Arctic,” said BP or not BP?

“If BP was serious about wanting to tackle climate change, it would be winding down its operations in Alaska, leaving the remaining oil in the ground and making sure that the lease is never acted upon,” the group said. “Instead, it has guaranteed that every last drop in Prudhoe Bay will be extracted —  there are estimated to be another billion barrels there — and that the Refuge will continue to be a target for oil exploration.”

The action organized by BP or not BP? this morning accompanies 16 banner drops across cities in North America today. Protests are scheduled to take place in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Chicago, Charlotte, DC, New York, and Boston.

Protesters also held up signs with QR codes that lead to an explainer on Arctic extraction on the group’s website.

“Museums rely on a mixed funding model in order to fulfill our public mission, and deliver an exciting and diverse public programme,” said a spokesperson for the British Museum, in response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

“The British Museum has long term relationships with Arctic indigenous communities, relating to objects in the collection,” the spokesperson continued. “We have engaged with individuals and communities from the region in different ways to inform the narrative of the exhibition, and include the voices and perspectives of the communities whose lives are most affected by rapid environmental change.”

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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