- Eleven-metre floor-to-balcony banner counts the 2,727 oil spills caused by BP’s Russian partner, Rosneft, in a single region in just one year
- Performers shower thousands of paper “oil drops” from balcony in the iconic Great Court
- Protest marks the final day of the BP-sponsored Scythians exhibition, held in partnership with the Russian State Hermitage Museum
- Phil Ball, an activist who was imprisoned by the Russian government for protesting against Arctic oil drilling, took part in the performance
At 2.15pm today, performers from the activist theatre troupe BP or not BP? dropped a floor-length banner from an eleven-metre-high balcony inside the British Museum and filled the air with floating “oil drops”, in protest at the museum’s partnership with the oil giant BP. The banner read “BP in Russia: how many oil spills is too many?”, above a thermometer-style image showing a total of 2,727 oil spills – the amount caused by BP’s Russian partner Rosneft in a single region in just one year. The eleven-metre banner descended from the balcony in front of the main entrance, in front of hundreds of museum-goers – some of whom cheered and applauded. The banner remained there for an hour. One of the people holding the banner was Phil Ball, an activist who in 2013 was illegally imprisoned – along with 29 others – by the Russian government for more than two months after taking part in a Greenpeace protest on an Arctic oil rig.
The performers also scattered over 2000 black paper oil drops into the Great Court, in a series of drops from the balcony, each one representing a Rosneft/BP oil spill in Russia. In addition to the crowd of watching adults, a large group of children immediately ran over to dance in the tumbling paper. Some of the children then took oil drops with them for their school’s ‘show and tell’.
Over thirty million barrels of oil are spilled by the oil industry in Russia every year, the majority by Russian state oil company Rosneft. This is equivalent to seven Deepwater Horizons per year. Many of these spills are in Indigenous territories, with devastating impacts on water, lands, health, livelihoods and wildlife; thousands of incidents are not officially recorded by oil companies or the state. This lack of scrutiny greatly benefits BP, as the company obtains a third of all its oil and gas from Russia, through a 19.75% stake in Rosneft.
Western economic sanctions targeting the oil industry are hampering BP’s activities in the region, including efforts to drill in the Arctic, and BP has been actively lobbying governments in an attempt to water down these sanctions – helped, in part, by the British Museum. Today’s performance marks the end of the British Museum’s blockbuster exhibition ‘Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia’, which is sponsored by BP in partnership with the Russian State Hermitage Museum. This arrangement provided BP with valuable lobbying and networking opportunities with British and Russian government officials . At the exhibition’s launch last year, the Russian Ambassador, staff from BP and the British Museum director enjoyed a private meeting before they greeted members of the press .
Further details of BP’s lobbying against Russian sanctions – including previously unseen Freedom of Information material – are due to be released tomorrow by research and campaigns group Culture Unstained. The material will be available at cultureunstained.org/crudeconnections
Helen Glynn, who took part in the performance, said: “BP is the second largest stakeholder in Rosneft after the Russian government. Two BP executives, including its CEO Bob Dudley, sit on Rosneft’s Board of Directors, and the companies have major joint extraction projects across Russia. BP is deeply embedded in this Russian oil giant, which is well-known as one of the most corrupt and polluting in the world. So why has the British Museum allowed BP to sponsor an exhibition of artefacts from the very regions and cultures that the company is putting at risk?
“This week, the New York Mayor announced that the city is suing BP and four other oil companies for the climate change damage they have caused. The British Museum faces huge reputational risks by continuing to promote and defend a company so toxic that one of the world’s richest cities has now turned against it.”
Phil Ball, referring to his 67-day imprisonment in Russia, said ‘I’ve had a taste of the way in which the Russian state acts to defend the oil industry. BP – with the help of the British Museum – is presenting itself as a respectable company, but it is very much part of the corrupt and toxic Russian oil industry that is wreaking such havoc from the Arctic to the Altai Mountains where many Scythian artefacts were discovered. BP lets Rosneft and the Russian state do its dirty work. When local people stand up against the industry they risk violence and repression far worse than anything I experienced.’
During today’s performance, 500 flyers were distributed to museum-goers. These flyers included a letter to British Museum Trustees for visitors to sign, calling for an end to the BP deal. Many visitors did indeed sign this letter and handed it in to museum staff. At the end of the performance, the group gathered up the oil drops and symbolically removed them from the museum.
This is the fourth protest performance to target the BP-branded Scythians exhibition during its four-month run. Firstly, at the press launch in September 2017, BP or not BP? set up a spoof BP stall to greet journalists at the exhibition entrance. In October, the group were joined by US performance activists Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir who held a “Ritual for the Permafrost” inside the museum. This referred to the fact that many items in the exhibition came from the Russian permafrost, which is threatened by the climate change from BP’s activities. Despite the huge threat that it poses to the future of Scythian archaeology, climate change is not mentioned at all in the oil-sponsored exhibition, a fact that the performers find “deeply suspicious”. In December, BP or not BP? returned to this theme with a 100-person ice-themed “freezemob” that left huge paper “permafrost cracks” across the museum floor.
Today was the latest action in the ongoing campaign against oil sponsorship of the arts which has seen recent actions in London, Amsterdam and Paris. It was the forty-ninth performance by BP or not BP?, and their thirty-first intervention in the British Museum since 2012.
BP or not BP? is a member of the Art Not Oil coalition.
We are grateful to X Minus Y for their generous support for this action.