We release a kraken in the British Museum

On Sunday, BP or not BP? pulled off our most ambitious performance to date. Two hundred performers – dressed in an amazing variety of home-made ocean-themed costumes – took over the British Museum’s Great Court with an hour-long, multi-act, musical performance to flood the museum’s dirty sponsor, BP, out of the space. The unsanctioned theatrical action culminated in a climactic battle with a 40-foot BP-branded sea monster that we managed to smuggle into the museum.

We were there in response to BP’s controversial and ironic sponsorship of the museum’s current ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition, and to challenge the museum’s decision, in late July, to renew its sponsorship deal with BP for another five years. This unpopular new deal – set to start in 2018 – would see the British Museum continuing to promote a climate-wrecking oil company until 2022. This decision looks even more farcically irresponsible in the face of new research from Oil Change International: their latest report confirms that to keep global warming below two degrees we must halt all new production of oil, coal and gas, and begin to phase out existing sources, putting the fossil fuel industry into “managed decline”.

The idea that a publicly-funded national museum could still be providing PR for a fossil fuel company into the 2020s is ridiculous enough, even before you consider the name of the latest BP-funded exhibition: ‘Sunken Cities’. By lobbying against climate laws, blocking clean energy and pushing to drill for ever-dirtier sources of oil, BP is doing more than almost anyone to push us into climate disaster and create the sunken cities of the future.

The exhibits on display have been recovered from two lost Egyptian cities, just along the coastline from Alexandria – one of the world’s most at-risk cities from rising sea levels. The cities were discovered near a spot where BP is drilling offshore for gas, thanks to its close relationship with the repressive Egyptian military regime, who brutally silenced the local community’s opposition and allowed the oil giant to proceed.

Photo by Kristian Buus

All of this was on our minds as we began to gather in the museum’s Great Court on Sunday afternoon. We’d announced our underwater-themed flashmob – or ‘splashmob’ – publicly in advance, so the museum had put on extra bag searches and security checks, meaning that every piece of prop and costume had to be smuggled in. A few items – a guitar, an amplifier, a sparkly mermaid tail, a giant tentacle – were discovered and refused entry. But as the start time of 2pm approached, we saw more and more people in the crowds around us reveal themselves as wearing something shimmery, or blue, or aquatic. The Museum café was suddenly full of people applying glitter and attaching fins and tails. Seeing that the time had come, our team of oceanic conductors strode to the middle of the space, blew on their invisible conch shells, and declared that the splashmob had begun!

Photo by Kristian Buus

The crowd gathered, and grew, numbering well over two hundred performers. A tribe of merfolk were summoned to begin the performance – but alas! – these misguided merpeople had been fooled into thinking BP’s Sunken Cities were something to celebrate. To the tune of Disney’s ‘Under The Sea’, they sang:

Just keep the fossils burning
So sea levels rise with haste
‘Cos our fishy hearts are yearning
To fill up your human space
Under the sea, under the sea
Cities are better when they are wetter
Mermaids agree!

Photo by Kristian Buus

…much to the delight of the two BP-branded pirates in attendance, who enthusiastically joined in, especially when the merfolk switched to a new song: “It’s Raining Oil”.

Photo by Kristian Buus

It was up to the crowd to teach the merfolk the error of their ways. The conductors began a new chant, backed up by the crowd, who responded to each line by singing ‘BP’:

Who is fuelling the ocean’s rise?
Who is melting the Arctic ice?
Who is making our cities sink?
Who has taken us to the brink?
Who spilled poison in the ocean?
Who pollutes without emotion?
Dolphins, pelicans, turtles die
Corals bleach, seas acidify
Not even merfolk will survive
BP leaves nothing alive

Photo by Kristian Buus

Persuaded at last, the merfolk ripped up their BP logos and joined the song, which soon turned into a rousing sea shanty:

One rig, two rigs, four
BP drilling in the ocean floor
BP drills, BP spills,
Hiding behind a sponsorship deal
We won’t let this stand
Watch the oceans rise
Tear those logos down
Hear the people cry

Photo by Kristian Buus

With a stamping of feet that echoed through the Great Court, the crowd turned on the BP pirates, to march them out of the museum to the beat of the song. But the pirates had one more trick up their sleeve, summoning an enormous BP kraken in front of the Sunken Cities exhibition, to the horror and delight of the crowd:

Say hello to the BP kraken
Here to bring you oil and fracking
Once it’s out of the ground, you can’t put it back in
Say hello to the BP kraken
The seas will boil and the waters blacken
The oceans rise and the ice is cracking
Say hello to the BP kraken
From Egypt to Mexico bad things happen
Repressive regimes? They’ve got our backing
Say hello to the BP kraken
The British Museum let BP back in
An ethical policy’s what it’s lacking
Say hello to the BP kraken

Photo by Ron F

At that moment, a senior British Museum employee stepped in to break up the performance…

Photo by Kristian Buus

…only to be eaten by the kraken (he was, of course, one of our performers in disguise).

Photo by Kristian Buus

There was only one thing for it. The splashmob decided to set a trap for the BP kraken, leading the giant beast – controlled by a team of puppeteers – through the museum until they could surround and defeat it with a defiant rendition of another sea shanty:

What shall we do with an oily sponsor?
What shall we do with an oily sponsor?
What shall we do with an oily sponsor?
Causing global warming?
Kick them out of culture
Kick them out of culture
Kick them out of culture
Start with this museum

Photo by Kristian Buus

With the BP kraken and pirates defeated in a whirlpool of song, the splashmob was able to rescue the British Museum from the branded belly of the beast.

Photo by Kristian Buus

The performance was watched by huge numbers of fascinated visitors – we distributed a thousand flyers, and many people followed the performance around the museum and enthusiastically joined in. This wasn’t unexpected. Thanks to a poll commissioned by Platform earlier this year, we know that the British Museum’s deal with BP is unpopular with Londoners, while many international museum visitors come from cities and countries on the frontlines of risk from rising sea levels. We even know that a majority of British Museum staff agree with the aims of our protests, thanks to a survey by the PCS union.

The action has made a decent splash in the media, including in the Times, the Evening Standard, the Metro, the Morning Star, the i, Hyperallergic, Ruptly TV, and we also made an appearance on ITV London News (the accompanying ITV online piece had quite a memorable headline).

Our theatrical action group BP or not BP? has been challenging fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and culture since 2012, with a series of creative protests in oil-funded cultural spaces. This was our twentieth performance in the British Museum, and our second that weekend (we were also there on Saturday with London Mexico Solidarity and others to support Letty Hidalgo, a Mexican mother whose son was forcibly disappeared, to call for justice for Mexico’s disappeared and demand an end to BP’s plans to drill in Mexico). The museum’s BP deal has also been targeted by many of our fellow members of the Art Not Oil coalition, as well as the London Quakers and Greenpeace. By signing a new 5-year contract with BP, the museum management were probably hoping to make us all shut up and go away.

On Sunday, we showed them that’s not going to happen – not while so many people are determined to raise their voices against the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry. The museum gets less than 1% of its annual income from BP – it doesn’t need oil money to survive. The new deal isn’t due to officially start until 2018, and so there’s still time to stop it before it begins. Together, we can defeat this monstrous sponsor before it sinks any more of our cities.

To join in with future BP or not BP? performances, contact info@bp-or-not-bp.org.
For more photographs and a livestream of the event, click here.

Photo by Kristian Buus


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