Activists from BP or not BP? occupied the British Museum for a total of 51 hours (20 of them inside the Great Court), in their boldest protest to date over BP sponsorship of exhibitions at the institution.
The symbolism of current BP sponsorship of the Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition was too much of a ‘gift horse’ for protesters who early in the morning on Friday 7th (a day before the publicly advertised mass protest) ‘smuggled’ a huge Trojan Horse through side gates at the museum and parked it in the middle of the courtyard in front of the main entrance.
As per the legend, the horse contained ‘soldiers’. So museum security were faced with the dilemma of either calling in the police to remove locked-on protesters, or allowing the horse and its minders to remain overnight.
On Saturday 8th, as hundreds of supporters arrived, they were greeted by the sight of the Trojan Horse and a whole array of costumed performers. Organised into groups taking different routes throughout the afternoon, a total of around 1500 people listened to talks by frontline community representatives from around the world.
They heard how the climate and ecological crisis is already affecting so many, and about the myth and reality of BP’s green credentials (despite their advertising claims, only 3% of their current investment is in renewable energy). They also learnt about BP’s many connections with repressive regimes, and about the actual level of sponsorship (which amounts to less than half a percent of the museum’s budget).
There were pop-up performances everywhere, arts workshops and banner drops, and training for the big finale in the Great Court where everyone came together in a huge crowd, sang specially commissioned songs, and performed a mass ripping of BP logos.
As the crowds left, and the Trojan Horse disappeared into the sunset, dozens of activists began the third phase of the occupation, creating an area to make plaster casts of parts of their bodies, and laying those casts in a circle in the centre of the Great Court – a durational performance they named Monument.
Museum security staff closed the museum and asked the artist protesters to leave. Police also arrived and discussed the situation with staff, who were making urgent phone calls (no doubt to higher management). When protesters were denied access to museum toilets, they built a structure from bamboo sticks and black cloth, and then assembled a small compost toilet which they’d smuggled in in parts!
Eventually it was clear that the idea of having police drag away dozens of artists and protecting BP would not play well in the media, and so the museum was forced to allow the occupation to continue. Sleeping in shifts, around 40 people carried on the performance and body casting throughout the night, so that when the public arrived in the morning, the new exhibit, Monument, greeted them, symbolising the growing movement opposing the climate destruction caused by fossil fuel firms like BP.
As a result of protest, in October last year the Royal Shakespeare Company announced it would end its 5-year deal with BP two years early, citing young people’s concerns over the climate crisis as the main driver of the decision. The following month, Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery also dropped its Portrait Awards association with BP, again citing the climate emergency.
Although the National Portrait Gallery in London has not dropped its sponsorship deal, the BP Awards won’t take place there next year due to refurbishment.
As more and more cultural institutions end their reliance on companies that not only contribute the most towards the impending climate disaster but who also lobby aggressively against legislation to protect our planet, surely it can’t be much longer that the British Museum continues its association with BP.
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