On Sunday 21st September, around seventy people entered the British Museum and used costumes, masks, and black material to recreate BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, in front of surprised Museum-goers and staff. The performance was organised by theatrical protest group “BP or nor BP?” to challenge BP’s ongoing sponsorship of the Museum, and was timed to coincide with the biggest global demonstration ever for climate action.The protesters gathered in the Great Court of the Museum at 10.45am, just outside the newly-opened BP-sponsored Ming exhibition. They laid out an 8-metre “oil spill” of gleaming black material. A sombre performance entitled “Gross Negligence” then unfolded, with performers dressed as dying pelicans, turtles and dolphins, destitute fishing workers and sickened clean-up volunteers. Together they recreated the harrowing consequences of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, four years after the US’s biggest oil spill finally stopped flowing. Eleven flowers were laid for the rig workers who died in the explosion. The script also highlighted the climate change that the whole world is suffering as a result of BP’s fossil fuel extraction, and the company’s political lobbying against environmental laws and clean energy alternatives. The full script can be read below.
The performance referred to the decision of a US judge earlier this month, who deemed that BP had been guilty of “gross negligence” and bore 67% of the responsibility for the disaster. The oil company could face compensation claims totalling tens of billions of pounds as a result of the judgement. Campaigners are now pointing to this decision as yet another reason why BP-sponsored institutions like the British Museum should break their ties with the controversial company.
BP’s cultural sponsorship is high on the agenda this week, with the Tateappearing in court over its refusal to disclose the amount of money it receives from BP. Anti-oil performance interventions also took place this month at Tate Modern and the Royal Opera House’s BP Big Screen event in Trafalgar Square, and the issue has been covered repeatedly in the national media.
During today’s British Museum performance, the whole crowd repeatedly chanted the refrain:
BP is guilty of gross negligence
Why does the British Museum stand by?
BP is guilty of gross negligence
Why’s this museum promoting its lies?
The protesters then froze in position and were surrounded by a large circle of Quakers and meditators, who proceeded to hold the space in silence for a further eleven minutes, to mark the eleven lives lost in the explosion.
Within this silence, the Quakers were holding a “Meeting for Worship”, to “create a silent space from which to reflect and question investment in fossil fuels and the impact this is having on the planet”. The meditators – led by a group calledDANCE (Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement) – were creating a “circle of meditation” in the same space, to “reflect on whether culture should be used to cleanse the image of oil companies and so endorse climate destruction and the great suffering it entails.”
This was the seventh performance protest that “BP or not BP?” have held inside the British Museum to challenge BP sponsorship. Previous performances have included a Shakespearean flashmob to coincide with the 2012 BP-sponsored Shakespeare exhibition, and a series of Viking invasions in protest at this summer’s BP-branded Vikings Exhibition. The Quaker and DANCE groups have also organised silent interventions in the Museum before. However, this is the first time that all three groups have co-ordinated their actions.
Museum security watched the performance unfold, but on this occasion they did not intervene. This was in contrast to the last performance by BP or not BP? in June 2014, which the British Museum tried to prevent with a large security operation: several performers were excluded, costumes were confiscated and one man was even arrested for trying to carry a cardboard shield into the building.
After today’s performance, the campaign group left the Museum and joined thousands of others on the People’s Climate March through London, accompanied by the Viking longship used in previous anti-BP protests at the Museum.
Jess Worth, who took part in today’s performance, said: “BP routinely behaves with gross negligence, not just in the Gulf of Mexico but in its exploitation of risky and polluting fuel sources all over the world. Why does the British Museum continue to promote this deeply irresponsible and destructive company? BP’s activities are destroying local cultures and the natural systems we all rely on for survival – is this really an appropriate logo to be plastered across the cultural treasures at the British Museum?”
Andrew Dey, who was part of the Quaker group inside the Museum, said “Actions like this are a form of witness to the destruction caused by the fossil fuel industry, and also aim to highlight how companies who profit from climate chaos sponsor public institutions to improve their public relations.”
Catherine McGee, a Buddhist Insight meditation teacher from the DANCE group, said “We know that life support systems are being dangerously harmed through extraction and use of fossil fuels, and countless beings are suffering as a result. As Nelson Mandela says, when humans act together to challenge suffering there is a ‘multiplication of courage’ born of our commitment to each other on this planet. In this way, I believe, real power can emerge that can disrupt the power of the status quo.”
BP provides less than 1% of the British Museum’s annual income. The company receives a large amount of high-profile branding in return, as well as the use of the largely publicly-funded Museum for its corporate events.
BP or not BP? is part of the Art Not Oil Coalition, alongside other anti-oil sponsorship groups such as Liberate Tate, Platform, UK Tar Sands Network, Rising Tide UK, Shell Out Sounds, Science Unstained, BP Out Of Opera and London Rising Tide.
You can read the script for 'Gross Negligence' here.