LONDON — Around 300 people gathered at the British Museum on Saturday, April 23, for a protest performance against the institution’s sponsorship by fossil fuel giant British Petroleum (BP). Organized by activist theatre group BP or Not BP?, the protest culminated in a mass action and occupation of the museum after hours. It was the fourth anti-BP demonstration at the British Museum in the last month.
Titled “Make BP History,” the action began at 1pm with multiple protests throughout the building: Participants gave speeches, leafleted museum visitors, and held up placards. Some of the signs urged trustees of the museum, such as academic Mary Beard, artist Grayson Perry, and politician George Osborne, to “be on the right side of history.” At 4pm, protesters convened in the museum’s Great Court and unfurled a 33-foot circle of white fabric printed with the words “DROP BP.” They added yellow and green petals to the circle, creating the distinctive shape of a BP logo.
The activists then led the crowd in a song with the refrain: “The sun is setting on BP, make BP history.” Pieces of the giant logo were animated by participants, who raised and dropped them in time with the song. The protesters then took the petals from the logo into galleries across the museum and transformed them into artworks representing “the future we need, beyond BP.” These ranged from small banners and kites to elaborate installations and carried messages such as “green future” and “fossil fuels are killing me.” Around 50 activists stayed in the museum until 7pm, two hours after closing time, while museum security staff requested that they leave.
BP has been a corporate partner of the British Museum since 1996, providing financial support for a range of the museum’s activities, including its exhibition program and the construction of the BP Lecture Theatre. The current five-year sponsorship contract was signed in May 2016 and extended for a year due to COVID-19. Emails and documents, released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) act and published by the activist group Culture Unstained, reportedly show that the museum’s director Hartwig Fischer met with BP to discuss continuing the sponsorship relationship.
“Renewing this sponsorship deal would send a terrible message, making an oil giant seem acceptable when we need to urgently shift away from this disastrous industry,” Deborah Locke, a member of the group taking part in Saturday’s action, said in a statement.
“BP is planning to spend £23 billion on new oil and gas fields between now and 2030. Despite its vague claims to be going green, BP’s business plan is a roadmap to climate collapse,” she added.
In addition to their calls for the museum to drop BP sponsorship, activists this weekend were campaigning for the return of objects such as the Rosetta Stone and Parthenon marbles to their countries of origin. During the protest, security staff closed off access to the museum’s Africa Galleries, which house the Benin Bronzes, a group of sculptures seized from the West African kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) by the British military in 1897. The British Museum has the most Benin Bronzes of any institution in the world, with over 900 such works in its collection. Last year, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Information and Culture sent a written request to the museum for the return of the objects.
“We are staging these protests because we’re highlighting the link between colonialism and climate change,” Sally, an activist who participated in Saturday’s action and asked not to be identified, told Hyperallergic. “BP is at the core of both these issues. They have been responsible for colonial exploitation in former British colonies and now are trying to ‘greenwash’ their reputation.”
A spokesperson for the British Museum told Hyperallergic that the institution respects “peaceful protest onsite at the museum as long as there is no risk to the collection, staff or visitors.” The representative added: “Without external support much programming and other major projects would not happen. The British Museum is grateful to all those who support its work in times of reduced funding.”
Over the last few years, other BP-sponsored cultural institutions in the United Kingdom have announced their decision to sever ties with the oil company. The Tate museums, the Royal Shakespeare Company, London’s National Portrait Gallery, and the Scottish Ballet have all ended their sponsorship deals with BP, while the National Theatre terminated its membership with another fossil fuel titan, Shell.
Last week, members of Culture Unstained including climate scientists and archaeologists sent an open letter to the British Museum urging the institution to end BP support, arguing that the oil company’s response to the climate emergency “clearly falls short of the scale and ambition of corporate responses that are now required.”
Researchers have found that while fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP have increased their promises around sustainability and clean energy in recent years, there is a mismatch between their stated aims and concrete actions.
The demonstration at the British Museum this weekend took place on the tenth anniversary of BP or not BP?’s first-ever protest, which challenged BP sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since 2012, the group has held nearly 70 protest performances in arts venues sponsored by fossil fuel companies. More than half of these have taken place in the British Museum.