“Unlawful arrest” as hundreds of protesters invade British Museum with Viking longship

Man dressed as Viking arrested outside British Museum for carrying a cardboard shield, but “flash-horde” protest against BP sponsorship goes ahead undeterred

Around 200 people – many dressed as Vikings – erect mobile longship in Great Court of Museum in vocal performance protest

Longship gives BP a Viking funeral in British Museum – Photo by Hugh Warwick

Today, hundreds of people invaded the British Museum to stage a Viking “flash-horde”, complete with a 15-metre longship. The performance was organised by theatrical protest group “BP or nor BP?” [1] in protest at BP’s sponsorship of the Museum’s popular Vikings exhibition [2].

Around 200 people, many of them dressed as Vikings, gathered in the Great Court of the Museum at 3.15pm. Several actors were prevented from entering the building by security, but the vast majority of participants entered without a problem, despite bag searches by security leading to long queues outside the Museum.

One man, who was carrying a cardboard Viking shield painted with a large BP logo, had his shield confiscated by security guards outside the Museum. Several witnesses describe how he handed the shield over calmly, but was then approached by several police officers who told him he was breaching the peace. He asked, calmly, what exactly he was doing to breach the peace; he was simply standing quietly in a queue. Two officers then grabbed him, pushed him against a wall and arrested him without explaining exactly what offence he had allegedly committed. An observer asked the arresting officer to give his name, but the officer refused. One witness described the event as “clearly an unlawful arrest”.

The group have held a large number of theatrical protests in the past, including six at the British Museum. None have ever resulted in arrests before.

The man in this case – who is known as Thor – was held for less than two hours and released without charge.

Meanwhile, inside the building the flashmob was launched with a series of co-ordinated “Viking poses”, which saw the crowd wielding imaginary swords and shields against BP. Fifty members of the crowd then used pre-painted props and banners to erect a fabric longship, in order to give two BP-branded Vikings a “Viking funeral”.

Photo by Hugh Warwick

The longship was decorated with a series of shields, graphically depicting BP’s misdeeds around the world: oil spills, tar sands extraction, climate change, human rights abuses, and blocking clean energy and environmental laws.

The longship and the rest of the funeral procession then moved around the Museum, singing and chanting, watched by hundreds of surprised museum-goers. Hundreds of leaflets were distributed to the public, and a solemn ceremony was held to “sink the ship” and commemorate all the damage done by BP around the world. The protesters then re-erected the ship outside in the courtyard and spent a long time singing, chanting and cheering about BP’s demise, in front of a large crowd on onlookers.

Sarah Horne, who took part in the flash-horde, said: “Despite over-the-top security and an outrageous and unnecessary arrest, we sent a clear message to the British Museum today: we will not sit by and let our cultural institutions be used as a cheap PR tool by destructive companies. BP provides less than 1% of the annual income of the British Museum, and yet gets enormous branding and public relations benefits in return, allowing it to hide its real activities around the world.

She continued: “We’re shocked about the extraordinary and unprecedented arrest – this has never happened at one of our performances before. Are the Museum so scared of people hearing the truth about their sponsor that they’re willing to condone these kinds of police tactics?”

A ceremony to mark the passing of BP and all of their destructive ways. Photo by Hugh Warwick

The flash-horde had been advertised in advance [3] with the public invited to take part. Many people heeded this call [4], and a large proportion of those who attended the protest had never been involved with the BP or BP? group before.

This was the latest in a series of performance protests by the group, who have also made a spoof Viking film based on the exhibition’s promotional trailer [5], launched a petition against the sponsorship deal [6] and invaded the Museum itself three other times whilst dressed as Vikings and Norse gods [7]. The first of these performance, on April 27th, was the subject of in-depth coverage by Channel 4 News [8].

The British Museum continues to defend its controversial sponsorship relationship with BP, despite the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster [9], the company’s decision to start extracting highly polluting and destructive tar sands oil in Canada [10], its enormous contribution towards climate change [11], and its recently-announced partnership with Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft in order to exploit the hazardous and vulnerable Arctic [12].

BP provides less than 1% of the British Museum’s annual income [13]. 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.

Pressure on cultural institutions to consider the ethics of their sponsorship deals is currently high. The veteran human rights campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently said “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change” [14].  Following months of pressure, the Southbank Centre suddenly ended its long-running sponsorship deal with Shell earlier this year [15]. Pressure is also growing on the Tate over its refusal to reveal details of its BP funding [16], and last month, a new group called “BP Out Of Opera” (BOOO) performed a surprise flashmob dance against BP sponsorship at a Royal Opera House screening in Trafalgar Square [17]. Meanwhile, campaigners from the Reclaim Shakespeare Company believe that their onstage protests contributed to the recent downgrading of BP’s sponsorship of the Royal Shakespeare Company [18].

The flash-horde invitation, as posted on the Reclaim Shakespeare Company website and Facebook page, read:

On Sunday June 15th, theatrical protest group the Reclaim Shakespeare Company will be invading the BP-sponsored British Museum with a piece of mass interactive theatre.

We want you to join us in this grand finale to our latest series of pop-up protests, targeting the Museum’s heavily BP-branded Vikings Exhibition.

With your help, we are planning to bring a longship into the Great Court of the Museum, in order to give BP a Viking funeral. This is obviously completely impossible, but we’re going to do it anyway 🙂

No experience of ship-building or transportation is required, and there will plenty of roles that don’t require heavy lifting.

All you need to do is email us on info@bp-or-not-bp.org. We’ll send you a short message with some simple instructions for your part in the performance. Learn these instructions and then be in the Museum at the appointed time to join the horde. You don’t need to dress as a Viking (although this is obviously encouraged). You can also “join” our Facebook event at https://www.facebook.com/events/811387198874308.

Sign up and we’ll see you there!

The Reclaim Shakespeare Company x

Why protest about BP?

BP has a long-running financial relationship with the British Museum. The oil giant even has a lecture theatre named after it. Now it is sponsoring an exhibition about the Vikings, some of history’s most famous plunderers of wealth and resources (so nothing ironic there then).

BP recently launched several highly polluting tar sands extraction projects in Canada, trampling over the rights of local Indigenous people. US Gulf Coast communities have been left devastated by BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, and the company is now eyeing up highly risky drilling options in the Arctic. At the same time, BP is lobbying against
environmental laws and blocking clean energy alternatives all over the world. It’s not surprising that the company likes to throw a bit of money at arts and culture to help distract us from its real activities.

It’s shameful that the Museum is letting BP get away with it. By providing a tiny percentage (less than 1%) of the annual income of the British Museum, BP gets a huge amount of positive publicity in return, helping it to present itself as a responsible member of society rather than the oily berserker it really is.

BP is only sponsoring our history to help it get away with destroying our future.

Help remove the taint of destruction from our national treasures – join us as we tell the British Museum to end its sponsorship deal with BP! Just email info@bp-or-not-bp.org to sign up for June 15th.

You can see a film of our recent surprise Viking performance at the British Museum here:

And here’s a film of the public flash-mob performance we held at the BP-sponsored Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum in 2012: https://bp-or-not-bp.org/news/shakespearean-flashmob-hits-bp-sponsored-british-museum/

Notes to Editors

 [1] “BP or not BP?” formed in 2012 to oppose BP’s sponsorship of the World Shakespeare Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). They performed a total of nine “guerilla Shakespeare” interventions by invading RSC stages just before BP-sponsored plays, and organising flashmobs at the British Museum’s ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ exhibition, also sponsored by BP. They also staged a surprise flashmob performance of an anti-oil version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, inside Tate Britain’s newly-opened “BP Walk through British Art” in January 2014, and are now targeting the Vikings Exhibition at the British Museum. For more information, including films of these performances, see http://www.bp-or-not-bp.org . You can also find the campaign on Facebook: ‘BP or not BP?’ and Twitter: @ReclaimOurBard

[2] http://www.britishmuseum.org/vikings

[3] https://bp-or-not-bp.org/news/join-our-viking-flash-horde-at-the-british-museum-3pm-june-15th/

[4] https://www.facebook.com/events/811387198874308/

[5] https://bp-or-not-bp.org/news/spoof-film-mocks-bp-sponsorship-of-british-museum-vikings-exhibition/

[6] https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/neil-macgregor-director-of-the-british-museum-end-your-sponsorship-deal-with-bp

[7] The first anti-BP Viking action took place on April 27th (https://bp-or-not-bp.org/news/horde-of-oily-vikings-invades-british-museum-in-protest-at-bp-sponsorship). On May 25th, campaigners set up a “BP Berserker Photobooth” at the Museum and invited members of the public to have their photos taken while dressed as BP Vikings. Then on May 30th, there were two pop-up protest performances inside the Museum, targeting a BP-sponsored talk about Viking sagas. Photos and descriptions of these actions can be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/ReclaimShakespeareCompany/photos_stream

[8] The Channel 4 News report can be viewed here: http://bcove.me/8on3wojx

[9] On April 20th, 2010, an explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and caused a rapid stream of crude oil to begin gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. It flowed unabated for the next three months, releasing just under 200 million gallons into the ocean – the largest marine oil accident in US history. The effects of the disaster continue to devastate coastal ecosystems, local livelihoods and residents’ health along the Gulf Coast. See http://gizmodo.com/5903021/bp-oil-spill-aftermath-eyeless-shrimp-clawless-crabs-and-fish-with-oozing-sores

[10] In December 2010, BP announced it was going ahead with a £1.6 billion investment in its first tar sands extraction project in Canada, known as ‘Sunrise’. Tar sands are one of the most polluting forms of fossil fuel on earth, and trample on the rights of local indigenous peoples. Respected NASA scientist James Hanson has calculated that if all the tar sands are extracted as planned, we have no hope of preventing runaway climate change. Tar sands extraction also causes huge damage to the local environment, and has serious effects on the health and livelihoods of local indigenous communities. BP is now looking to make major new investments in this risky, capital-intensive, highly-polluting unconventional oil. See http://www.no-tar-sands.org/what-are-the-tar-sands/

[11] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/20/90-companies-man-made-global-warming-emissions-climate-change

[12] For more details about the partnership, see: http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/russian-roulette-the-bp-and-rosneft-deal/

[13] http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/artoilinfographic/

[14] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/10/divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change-keystone-xl

[15] Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre was suddenly dropped following a series of musical protests against Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre by a group called Shell Out Sounds, along with vocal opposition from artists and audiences. See http://platformlondon.org/2014/01/24/shell-no-longer-sponsoring-southbank-classic-series-a-timeline/

[16] http://platformlondon.org/2014/04/04/time-for-tate-to-stop-being-so-shady-over-bp-sponsorship/

[17] http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2014/05/21/artists-call-for-bp-to-get-out-of-the-opera/

[18] Since the Reclaim Shakespeare Company held its season of stage invasions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, no further plays have been branded with the BP logo although the oil company does still sponsor a discount youth ticket scheme. See https://bp-or-not-bp.org/news/how-we-reclaimed-the-bard-from-bp/

The Reclaim Shakespeare Company and Shell Out Sounds are part of an umbrella group called the Art Not Oil Coalition, alongside other anti-oil sponsorship groups such as Liberate Tate, Platform, UK Tar Sands Network, Rising Tide UK and London Rising Tide. See www.artnotoil.org.uk

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