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'We just occupied the British Museum for 51 hours, against BP sponsorship and colonialism'

Raki Ap from the Free West Papua campaign; photo by Amy Scaife
Campaigners from Senegalese civil society group Aar Li Nu Bokk speak inside the museum as part of the mass action. Photo by Amy Scaife.
Photo by Amy Scaife

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'This morning at 10.30am, 40 activists processed out of the British Museum after successfully occupying its iconic Great Court for 20 hours and creating a “durational artwork” overnight, in a challenge to the museum’s BP sponsorship deal. After smuggling sleeping bags, plaster bandages and a pop-up toilet into the museum, the group set about creating casts of their bodies which were laid out across the museum floor. The resulting artwork remains in place as visitors enter the museum this morning, with a few protesters remaining as curators to introduce the piece to the public. The artwork – called “Monument” – symbolises the growing movement opposing the climate-crashing business plans of fossil fuel firms such as BP.

It marked the end of three days of protest and action organised by the activist theatre group BP or not BP? The action began when activists hauled a 13-foot Trojan Horse into the museum’s courtyard on Friday morning and intensified yesterday when around 1500 people flooded the museum in a mass creative protest against its BP deal and its colonial practices – the biggest protest to target the museum in its 260-year history. The Trojan Horse remained in the museum courtyard from Friday morning to Saturday evening, with two “actor-vists” sleeping inside it on Friday night. It left shortly after the start of the artmaking in the Great Court, meaning that protesters were occupying the museum’s grounds for a total of 51 hours. The performers were targeting BP’s sponsorship of the museum’s current Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition.

The scale and duration of the weekend’s events are an unprecedented escalation in the long-running campaign to end oil sponsorship of culture and divest organisations from fossil fuels. Multiple groups and struggles from around the world came together in the museum to make the links between climate change, fossil fuel extraction, colonialism, human rights abuses and workers’ rights, using the museum as a backdrop for calls for justice and decolonisation and reimagining what a truly enlightened, responsible and engaged British Museum could look like.

Mamadou Mane, from the Senegalese civil society group Aar Li Nu Bokk who took part in Saturday’s mass action, said:

“Just last year, the BBC’s Panorama programme exposed BP’s links to a major corruption scandal, where the company had agreed to pay huge royalty payments of $10 billion to get its hands on new oil and gas drilling licenses, but an agreement that would ultimately deprive the people of Senegal of major revenues. With the British Museum still holding artefacts that were once looted from the African continent, it is perhaps no surprise to see it celebrating and defending an oil company that shows the same colonial attitude today.”

Zozan Yaşar, a Kurdish journalist and activist, was unable to attend the performance but sent a recorded message that was played in the museum on Saturday. She said:

‘In many countries people are starting to protest about climate change, to imagine a different future and to change things. But in Turkey, the situation is politically very different – it’s hard to speak out and these kinds of protests have been banned. Oil and gas projects like BP’s pipelines have cost many lives, but because of the sanctions placed on freedom of speech, few people are aware of this. By partnering with the Turkish government on gas pipelines, BP is helping to maintain this situation and is profiting from the silencing of protest.’

Around 60 performers refused to leave the museum’s Great Court when it closed to the public on Saturday night, with 40 remaining in the museum until this morning. The activists’ success in holding the space all night puts yet more pressure on the museum’s partnership with the oil giant, which has been widely criticised by artists, activists and many others for lending legitimacy to a firm that is still 97% invested in fossil fuels. Last year, author Ahdaf Soueif resigned from the museum’s Board, in part, over its partnership with BP, saying the funding it provides “would not be unattainable elsewhere”.

Sonia Heal, who took part in the overnight art-making said:

“We know that BP has been in the very space where we have created our artwork but unlike us, when BP was here, it was wining and dining influential figures as part of its bid to stick to business as usual. If the polluters can make the museum into a platform for boosting their brand, then reclaiming that space with an artwork which spotlights the movement for climate justice is a wholly logical response. The museum’s Director needs to end his delay and denial, and stop giving BP a place to hide.”

The group’s plaque accompanying their durational artwork “Monument” notes that “BP sponsorship is worth less than half a percent of the museum’s annual income” and that it “must now follow in the footsteps of Tate, the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and National Galleries Scotland” by cutting ties to oil sponsors. Of the artwork itself, it says “We are imagining a world in which the British Museum has stopped celebrating those causing the climate crisis and is instead allying itself with those who have, currently are, and will be putting their bodies on the line in the fight for climate justice.”