Reverend Billy leads ritual for the permafrost at British Museum

Photo by Amy Scaife

Yesterday, over fifty people joined us for a powerful ritual protest led by activist and radical “Earth Preacher” from New York, Reverend Billy Talen. Joined by his ‘Stop Shopping Choir’ as well as members of ‘BP or not BP?’, we together exposed the irony of BP sponsoring the museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition, ‘Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia’. Through its contribution to global warming, BP is accelerating the melting of the Siberian permafrost where many artefacts in the exhibition had once been preserved. The oil giant is endangering the very archaeology it claims to support – something the exhibition fails to mention.

Watch the film below and the livestream at the end of this post

The performance began with a poignant sermon on the hypocrisy and deception of BP from Reverend Billy, spoken from the entrance of the exhibition and under several large BP-branded banners. The performers then suddenly emerged from the surrounding crowds and began to wrap themselves in large dark black bags, creating poignant sculptures with their bodies on the white stone floor. With hands and limbs protruding from holes in the bags and coated in gold paint, their bodies evoked the ornate golden artefacts on display in the exhibition.

‘What do you call this? The fossil fuel companies and their speculators destroy our access to history while sponsoring its prestigious exhibition, and while directly endangering our future. It’s beyond ironical. It’s diabolical! BP is the Devil!’

Reverend Billy Talen

Nehemiah Luckett sings ‘The Widening Gyre’ outside the BP-sponsored Scythians exhibition. Photo by Amy Scaife

As his sermon came to an end, the choir’s musical director walked among the bodies singing ‘The Widening Gyre’, a blues-based setting of  W.B. Yeats’s famous poem. The call-and-echo of the choir reverberated around the Great Court, momentarily transforming it into a scared cathedral-like space.

As the song ended, the performers unwrapped themselves and transformed their bags into a large puppet-like wave of black oil that eerily slowly ebbed and flowed out the museum’s entrance. Reverend Billy was joined by other participants and members of the public in a slow reverential procession behind. As the wave flowed, the group began to sing a new version of a traditional ‘Diggers’ song…

‘Leave the oil in the ground! / Leave the souls in the ground!

Our ancestors below, calling out to us / Cradled by the Earth, in the permafrost…’

Olivia Anthony, a member of ‘BP or not BP?’ said:

‘Today’s performance exposed many sides of BP’s impacts around the world, from its contribution to the global warming that is melting the Siberian permafrost, to the spilled oil that is still submerged in the Gulf of Mexico after the company’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. These toxic injustices should not be ignored but in accepting a sponsorship deal with BP, the British Museum has done exactly that and is helping to cover them up.’

Archaeologists are in a race against time to preserve the extraordinary Scythian culture before warmer temperatures do permanent damage. Leading Scythian archaeologist Hermann Parzinger has said, ‘Right now we’re facing a rescue archaeology situation. It’s hard to say how much longer these [Scythian] graves will be there.’

On the steps of the British Museum, Reverend Billy is joined by the performers. Photo by Amy Scaife.

By sponsoring an exhibition in partnership with the Russian State Hermitage Museum, BP is provided with valuable lobbying and networking opportunities with British and Russian government officials by the museum. We already know that at the exhibition’s launch earlier in the year, the Russian Ambassador, staff from BP and the British Museum director enjoyed a private breakfast before they greeted members of the press. Russia is responsible for a third of BP’s global oil and gas output, primarily through a 20% stake in Russian state oil company Rosneft, but Western economic sanctions targeting the oil industry are hampering the company’s activities in the region, including efforts to drill in the Arctic.

Saturday’s performance came as Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir reach the climax of their UK tour after having performed in Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Brighton, Colchester and Chelmsford over the past week. It was the latest action in the ongoing campaign against oil sponsorship of the arts which, in recent months, has seen actions in London, Amsterdam and Paris, and today was the twenty-ninth undertaken by ‘BP or not BP?’ inside the museum since 2012.

The faithful and supporters of the Earth are anointed with gold. Photo by Amy Scaife.

Watch the full livestream of the ritual protest below…

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