- 40 performers take part in “oily cashmob” protest inside BP-sponsored British Museum
- Heightened museum security confiscate cardboard signs, bow ties, wigs and waistcoats – but performance goes ahead anyway
- Actor-vists spotlight shocking stats behind BP sponsorship of iconic museums
- Ahead of BP AGM, campaigners target government’s hefty hand-out to BP
Yesterday, 40 performers from the activist theatre troupe BP or not BP? took over the British Museum’s iconic Great Court with a performance protest targeting the museum’s sponsor BP. Dressed in glittery bow ties and suits, their theatrical intervention took the form of a “rigged gameshow” highlighting the huge contrast between BP’s hefty £210 million handout from the UK government in 2015 and BP’s much smaller payments to museums and galleries. The protest concluded a global fortnight of action calling on public institutions to cut their ties to fossil fuels, with performances in the past few days at the Total-sponsored Musée du Louvre in Paris and the Shell-sponsored Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, recently claimed that the museum is “a forum” where the public are free to come and raise objections to the BP sponsorship. However, on this occasion the performers faced much tougher security restrictions than for previous performances, with objects such as cardboard signs, sparkly waistcoats and leaflets being confiscated by security guards. Ken Harrison, one of the performers, said, “It seems the British Museum is going to new lengths to protect the image of its disastrous sponsor. The items that were taken from us presented zero risk of any kind – other than risk to BP’s reputation. They even confiscated handfuls of our flyers – it’s shocking that the museum is going to these lengths to prevent the public from learning the truth about BPs funding.”
Today’s “cashmob” performance began with a chorus of singers processing down the central museum stairs to the Great Court where they then hosted “Who Wants to Pay a Billionaire?” – a rigged game show where BP wins millions in taxpayers’ money despite getting every question wrong. When BP offers just a sliver of its prize winnings to a cast member playing the role of the British Museum, the museum comes to its senses and leads the gathered crowd in chanting “No BP deal!”
Tilly Hearn, who took part in the performance, said:
“For the government to subsidise BP while the planet warms, and cut arts funding despite its benefit to the economy, is a game with the rules rigged in BP’s favour. The company soaks up millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in subsidies and then tries to paint itself as generous by giving its loose change to the arts. BP is taking full advantage of the situation and cynically boosting both its profits and its brand in the process.”
The performance drew upon figures featured in a new infographic launched on Friday by climate campaigners Oil Change International and Art Not Oil. It highlighted how in 2015, the UK government handed over £210 million of taxpayers’ money to BP in subsidies while the oil giant touted its £2 million of arts sponsorship, money split between four museums and galleries: the Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery. In the same year, those four cultural institutions received over 50 times more from the taxpayer than from BP, with around £110 million of funding coming from central government .
In 2016, BP announced that it would end its 26-year sponsorship of the Tate following high-profile protests by arts activists. BP claimed its decision was down to the low oil price and “challenging business environment”, a claim contradicted by these figures. Last July, a new 5-year sponsorship deal with the British Museum, Royal Opera House, National Portrait Gallery and Royal Shakespeare Company was announced and met with widespread disapproval from high-profile figures in the arts, sciences and cultural sector. In that new deal, BP will cut its payments to the arts by a quarter.
Oil subsidies continue to increase massively, with former Chancellor George Osborne’s last two Budgets in 2015 and 2016 transferring billions of government funds to the industry. His successor Philip Hammond has declined to reverse the handouts and has started a review of whether they should go further.
BP or not BP? has performed inside the British Museum without permission 24 times since 2012, with performances including a guerrilla exhibition entitled ‘A History of BP in 10 Objects’ parodying the museum’s own ‘History of the World in 100 objects’, and a mass “splash-mob” of 200 people including a 40-foot sea monster puppet. Today’s performance comes at the end of ten days of global action hosted by climate campaigners 350.org, calling on public institutions to cut their ties to fossil fuels by withdrawing investments and dropping sponsorships.
BP or not BP? is part of the Art Not Oil Coalition.
 The BP subsidy figure can be found here. How much the four BP-sponsored institutions got from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and/or Arts Council England in 2015-16 is shown below:
- British Museum: £39.2m revenue and £2.6m capital grant-in-aid
- National Portrait Gallery: £6.6m grant-in-aid
- Royal Opera House: ACE-NPO & Bridge £25.8m and ACE – capital grant £2.7m (2015)
- Tate: £32.7m grant-in-aid
Total for the ‘Big Four’ cultural institutions: £109.6 million. Note that Tate is no longer sponsored by BP, but the Royal Shakespeare Company has been added into the oil company’s five-year sponsorship deal for 2018-2022.