This Saturday, on the first weekend of the British Museum’s reopening after a lengthy pandemic shutdown, protesters flooded the London institution’s Great Court in the latest demonstration against oil sponsorship in the cultural sector. Denouncing British Petroleum’s (BP’s) backing of the forthcoming exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth, activists dressed in flame-hued togas chanted while three violinists performed in Emperor Nero costumes in the colors of BP’s logo.
They held a sign that read “BP Fiddles As the World Burns,” a remix of the expression “Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” a reference to the popular legend that the emperor stood by as a blaze ravaged the city in 64 AD, claiming hundreds of lives.
The phrase is “the perfect metaphor for BP’s failure to act in the face of the climate emergency,” said BP or not BP?, the advocacy group behind the theatrical action. According to the group, performers maintained social distance from staff and visitors and tested negative for COVID-19 prior to the demonstration.
“The oil giant is continuing to extract fossil fuels as the world literally burns around it, while using its sponsorship of the British Museum to style itself as a responsible climate leader,” said Bayryam Bayryamali, a member of BP or not BP?.
“While we are delighted that museums are reopening, it’s disappointing to see two of our most prominent — the British Museum and Science Museum — immediately launching oil-sponsored exhibitions when the climate crisis has only become more urgent during the pandemic,” they added.
A spokesperson said that the British Museum “respects other people’s right to express their views and allows peaceful protest onsite” so long as safety protocols are respected. They added that “the group cooperated with Museum staff and the event was conducted within COVID secure guidelines,” they added.
Following the British Museum performance, members of BP or not BP? joined dozens of strikers from the UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) at the Science Museum, where they protested Shell’s sponsorship of its exhibition Our Future Planet. Critics have described the oil giant’s support of the show, which centers on “capture and storage” technologies for carbon emission reduction, as “staggeringly out-of-step and irresponsible.”
A spokesperson for the Science Museum told Hyperallergic, “The peaceful protest took place without incident and visitors continued to have safe access to the inspiration of our museum and to the vaccination centre.”
BP or not BP? was founded to take a stand against what it deems as “artwashing” by major fossil fuel companies — using their partnerships with arts and culture institutions to paint a benevolent picture and deflect attention from their complicity in the climate crisis. The theatrical protest group came together in 2012 to protest BP’s backing of the Royal Shakespeare Festival, which has since dropped the corporation’s sponsorship. Other organizations, including the National Portrait Gallery, have taken similar steps to cut ties with big oil.
The British Museum and Science Museum “are two of the very few UK cultural institutions still sponsored by oil companies,” says BP or not BP?.
This weekend’s protest at the British Museum shined a light on BP’s fossil fuel expansion plans in areas already severely impacted by climate change-induced fires. In an audio clip played through speakers as part of the performance, the group shared a testimony by Julie Macken, a volunteer firefighter based in Sydney, Australia.
“The Australian bushfires killed 34 people, they killed over a billion animals, they destroyed over 2,000 homes, they burned millions of hectares of wild bush,” Macken’s voice resounded. “We could not breathe in Sydney because of the smoke.”
While BP has pledged to reduce its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, it continues to advance and engage in mega gas initiatives, including two plants in Burrup Hub that environmental activists have called “the most polluting fossil fuel project ever to be proposed in Australia.“
“Companies like BP shouldn’t be spending money on new oil and gas that we can’t afford to burn — they should be paying to fund the firefighting challenge that we’re going to be confronting for the next century,” Macken said in the audio clip. “They should pay for it because they created it, by pushing the world into climate crisis.”
Join Hyperallergic for an online conversation with cultural organizer and curator La Tanya S. Autry on February 1 at 7pm (EST).
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