Protesters bring Deepwater Horizon oil spill into BP-sponsored British Museum

  • Performers create tableau of dying animals, devastated locals and poisoned waters in front of new BP-sponsored exhibition
  • Performance highlights four-year anniversary and this month’s decision by a US judge that BP was “grossly negligent” and bore clear responsibility for the disaster
  • Protest part of global day of action on climate change, with major marches in New York, London, and around the world
  • Quakers and meditators circle the protest in silent contemplation
  • Photos here.

Gross Negligence from rikki on Vimeo.

This morning, 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.

Aerial view photo by Louisa Wright
Photo by Louisa Wright

BP’s cultural sponsorship is high on the agenda this week, with the Tate appearing 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.

2014-09-21 19.46.02
Photo by Anna Branthwaite

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 called DANCE (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.

Photo by Anna Branthwaite
Photo by Anna Branthwaite

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.

Photo by Anna Branthwaite
Photo by Anna Branthwaite

The script for “Gross Negligence”

Refrain – chanted by all between each verse:

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?

“Gross negligence” pronounced Judge Barbier
The harshest judgement he could have decreed
BP is guilty – it caused the disaster
But what does “gross negligence” truly mean?

It means, for the workers, heartbreak and trauma.
Deepwater Horizon exploding in flames
11 men dead, the rig sunk forever,
Oil gushing, relentless, for 87 days.

It means, for the pelicans, choking and sinking
Struggling to clean themselves, swallowing oil
Sticky and globulent, burning and stinking
Wings outstretched uselessly, tar-drenched and soiled.

It means, for the turtles, disorientation:
What was once home is now polluted soup
They must lay their eggs, but the beaches are oil-clogged
So their babies hatch, blink, and creep straight into crude.

It means, for the dolphins, an end to sweet freedom
Dark plumes have invaded their playground, their games
Now there’s lesions, diseases, miscarriages, bleeding
Once-busy bodies anaemic and drained

It means, for the fishers, the end of their world:
Deformed shrimp and poisonous oysters don’t sell
Boats lie abandoned, nets silently mouldering
Poverty, idleness, depression, hell

It means, for the cleanup crew, crippling sickness
Toxic dispersants and no safety gear
Breeding migraines and tumours, fatigue and abscesses
Lost memory, lung disease, chronic pain, fear

It means, for the rest of us, more global warming
As BP sucks every last drop of oil dry
Unmoved by the scientists’ direst warnings
For more profits today it will let the world fry.

It means we must wipe BP off of this planet
An oil-free future is not just a dream
It will happen when BP is shunned by its champions
Yes, we’re looking at YOU now, the British Museum!

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