BP Fiddles While the World Burns

As the British Museum prepares to open its latest BP-sponsored exhibition titled Nero: the man behind the myth, we are staging a Covid-secure musical protest.


BP or not BP? is a performance protest group that believes that cultural institutions must break their links with the fossil fuel industry. Over the last nine years we have held actions across major cultural institutions that have received fossil fuel sponsorship from BP. Recently, many cultural institutions have cut their ties to oil sponsorship. In October 2019, the Royal Shakespeare Company dropped BP as a sponsor mid-contract and, just days later, the National Theatre declared a climate emergency and announced the end of its partnership with oil giant Shell. In March 2020 the Southbank Centre and British Film Institute confirmed that their corporate memberships with Shell would also not be renewed, and in May 2020 the National Portrait Gallery revealed it had dropped BP as a judge of the BP Portrait Award following protests from artists. The British Museum is one of the very few cultural institutions that are still sponsored by oil corporations and we are urging it not to renew its BP partnership, which expires in 2021.


Ahead of the Nero exhibition opening, our performance references the infamous myth that Nero “fiddled while Rome burned”, which is a perfect metaphor for BP putting on a show of caring while failing to act in the face of the climate emergency. 

There’s some irony in BP sponsoring the murderous dictator Nero, when the company has a long history of supporting repression and dictatorship in the countries where it operates. Meanwhile, the exhibition itself seems to be trying to “rehabilitate” Nero and say he maybe wasn’t so bad (despite, you know, killing his wife and arranging to have his political enemies murdered – including his own mother). So whether it’s a murderous Emperor or a planet-wrecking oil company, the British Museum seems to be making a habit of covering up injustice and destruction.

Prior to the performance we conducted a risk assessment and all participants in the action tested negative for COVID using lateral flow tests. This socially-distanced action aims not to block any flow of visitors to the museum. Our targets are the British Museum management and Board, NOT the frontline staff, many of whom agree with us (and have had a really tough year). 


Despite the International Energy Agency’s announcement earlier this week that keeping global heating to 1.5 degrees will require no new fossil fuel projects to be approved globally, BP is trying to expand fossil fuel extraction. There is a further irony to BP sponsoring an exhibition about an emperor who was accused of ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ while continuing its plans to drill for new oil and gas in countries like Russia and Australia that have been badly hit by fires linked to climate change. BP is also one of the main backers of the Southern Gas Corridor, a network of pipelines bringing fossil gas from Azerbaijan into Italy, where many of the objects in the Nero exhibition are from.

Gianluca Maggiore from noTAP, a movement opposing the network of BP-funded pipelines from Azerbaijan to Italy, said:

“The link between BP and Nero is truly fitting: Nero is the perfect spokesperson for BP’s anti-climate policies. The history of humanity is full of scenes that repeat themselves. At this moment, BP watches the Earth burn from climate change, just like Nero watched Rome burn as he played his lyre. The planet is on fire because of climate change and the fossil emperors continue to play the lyre of their profits.” 


There will be another protest taking place at 2pm today as youth climate strikers, led by UKSCN London, target the Science Museum over its Shell sponsorship. Earlier this week, young activists launched a boycott of the exhibition over its Shell branding, and over 4000 people have already pledged not to attend the exhibition unless the Shell sponsorship is dropped. The British Museum and Science Museum are two of the very few UK cultural institutions still sponsored by oil companies. 

Museum sector sponsorship deals with big oil deter the general public from engaging with the museum’s display in a non-complicit and holistic way. While the Science Museum and British Museum are valuable learning hubs, the partnerships with BP and Shell further complicate the role of the cultural sector in advancing the goals of green recovery from the pandemic. Many museums continue to experience financial hardship from the unsustainable way the government was operating even before the financial, racial and healthcare crises prompted by COVID-19. That is why we call upon major cultural hubs such as the British Museum and the Science Museum to display culture without engaging in greenwashing, raise awareness among the general public about the impact of the climate crisis on global health and the majority world, and be accessible learning sites that interrogate the racial inequalities that their collections might uphold.