Musical anti-oil and privatisation protest disrupts launch of National Gallery exhibition

National Gallery criticised for Shell sponsorship and proposed privatisation on eve of staff strike

At 11.25 this morning, the official media launch of the National Gallery’s Shell-sponsored Rembrandt exhibition was interrupted by an unexpected musical protest. Ten performers launched into a energetic reworked musical version of “Dr Faustus” in front of surprised journalists, staff and gallery-goers.

Oil sponsorship, Rembrandt & the National Gallery from rikki on Vimeo.

 The performance featured a gallery director selling his soul to an oily, Shell-branded devil, and singing about his desire to outsource the majority of his staff. The new Rembrandt exhibition is sponsored by Shell, a company facing heavy criticism for its destructive extraction activities [1] and contribution to climate change [2]. In addition, the exhibition will be entirely staffed by a private security firm rather than the Gallery’s own staff. Staff at the gallery are also facing the threat of large-scale privatisation which could see up to two-thirds of workers’ roles outsourced to private companies.

At one point in the song, the narrator sang:

Museum man, he bought their plan / To sell his staff, to private hands
Make deals with corporate monsters / Like Shell the oily sponsor

The performance was accompanied by a banner reading “Art For People Not Profit”. The full script can be seen below. Security guards attempted to stop the singers but could not prevent the performance from happening. The performance finished with the singers symbolically casting the oily Shell-devil from the building and ripping up the privatisation plans. A police van arrived shortly after the protesters had left the building, but the police did not interfere.

Inside the National Gallery by Kristian Buus
Inside the National Gallery – photo by Kristian Buus

PCS Union members at the gallery will be part of a national civil servants’ strike tomorrow over pay, conditions, and privatisation of public services. On the same day, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation will be in court in Canada to challenge Shell’s legal right to expand their polluting tar sands operations on Indigenous land. Today’s performance was organised by the activist performance groups BP or not BP? and Shell Out Sounds, to show solidarity with the striking workers and also challenge the National Gallery’s relationship with the oil industry.

Outside the National Gallery - photo by Kristian Buus
Outside the National Gallery – photo by Kristian Buus

There is increasing international pressure on public institutions to sever their ties with the fossil fuel industry. The rapidly-growing fossil fuel divestment movement has seen the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association and even the Rockefeller Foundation pull their money out of the fossil fuel industry. Last week, Glasgow University became the first university in Europe to divest from fossil fuels, and Lego dropped Shell as a sponsor following a high-profile Greenpeace campaign.

The Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and the Royal Shakespeare Company now face frequent protests over their sponsorship deal with BP, while the Southbank Centre ended its relationship with Shell earlier this year after pressure from artists and campaigners.

Clara Paillard, President of the PCS Culture Sector, said: “Privatisation and sponsorship by oil companies are two sides of the same coin: it is about the ongoing sell-off of public services, including museums and galleries. It is about exploiting workers for corporate profit. PCS believes austerity is not the only show in town and that proper public investment in arts and culture is in fact beneficial to the economy.”

Rhiannon Kelly from BP or not BP? said: “Arts institutions like the National Gallery receive just a small percentage of their funding from corporate sponsors like Shell, but these corporations receive a large amount of branding and kudos in return. We know the National Gallery can make ethical funding decisions if it chooses to – it dropped the arms company Finmeccanica in 2012 following public protests. Shell may need the arts to prop up its tarnished brand, but the arts do not need Shell.”

BP or not BP? and Shell Out Sounds plan to return to the gallery on Thursday for a public protest outside Shell’s corporate “gala evening” for special guests and senior staff. Over 80 people have already pledged to attend the protest, which is being co-hosted by Art Not Oil, Shell Out Sounds, BP or not BP?, Platform, the UK Tar Sands Network, and Christian Climate Action.

BP or not BP? and Shell Out Sounds are part of the Art Not Oil coalition, along with other groups seeking to kick oil sponsorship out of art and culture such as Liberate Tate, BP Out Of Opera, Platform, Science Unstained and London Rising Tide.

The script:

Dr Penny and the Deeds of Shell
[based on Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe]

Cast: Gallery Director (“Museum Man”)
Shell Executive (who resembles the devil)
Three singing Narrators

Chorus (sung by all)

See the oil spill
Breathe the gas flare
Taste the tar sands
The deeds of Shell

Gallery Director:

In London town, our story starts
My gallery, of national art
Paid for by the public
Visitors, they loved it

Then one day, a man from Shell
He came to town, to cast a spell:
A gallery of “artwash”
To benefit the oil boss!

Chorus (all)

Narrator 1:

[During this verse, the Gallery Director and Shell Executive act out the striking of a deal. The Director ticks items off a large to-do list reading “Sell soul to oily devil (tick), Outsource two-thirds of staff (tick)”]

Museum man, was keen to please
He sold his soul, upon his knees
His workers wanted fair pay
The devils they would not play

Museum man, he bought their plan
To sell his staff, to private hands
Made deals with corporate monsters
Like Shell, the oily sponsor

Chorus (all)

Narrator 2:

Museum man, awoke one night
Drenched in oil, a nasty fright
He saw the world was changing
The climate rearranging

The man from Shell, he laughed and said
[Shell exec] “Our profits grow, the earth is dead”
The Arctic drained of oil
The Delta had been spoiled

Chorus (all)

Narrator 3:

Museum man, he cast them out
[Gallery Director] “Corporate thieves, I have no doubt!
Their name is but an oil slick
And art is for the public!”

We’ll cut the cuts, to national art
Culture, oil: prise them apart
We’ll stand for jobs and climate
Art funded by the public!

Chorus (all)
[The Shell Executive is symbolically ejected from the building]


[1] Shell has operated in Nigeria for over 50 years and oil spills have become an almost daily occurrence in the oil region of the Niger Delta. A 2011 UN report confirmed the horrifying extent of pollution in the Ogoni region and estimated it could take 25 to 30 years to clean up. Shell is also one of the largest players in the tar sands in Canada, which are one of the most carbon-intensive and environmentally destructive sources of oil in the world, and has been the most aggressive company seeking to exploit the pristine Arctic Ocean for offshore oil. If an oil spill were to happen in the Arctic’s extreme, remote conditions, there is no proven method to clean it up.

[2] In addition to its own massive carbon emissions – which account for 2% of all the greenhouse gas emitted in history ( – Shell is also actively lobbying against environmental legislation and clean energy solutions around the world. See for example

5 thoughts on “Musical anti-oil and privatisation protest disrupts launch of National Gallery exhibition

  1. This proposed handover of national treasures to the care of such notoriously incompetent firms as SERCO and G4S is simply outrageous and must be stopped.


  2. I just saw your performance at the National Gallery staff exhibition at PCS. It was brilliant and most heartening to see such eloquent protest. Thank you.


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