The group said that they thought it was ‘deeply ironic’ that the oil industry has chosen to sponsor the exhibition because the particular deal BP had struck with the museum was ‘essentially a Trojan Horse’ for the BP’s current activities around the world. “Just like in the myth,” the press release stated, “BP makes out that it is offering us a gift.” In reality, the famous Trojan Horse of antiquity contained warriors who ran amok once they got behind Troy’s defences. “In reality, [BP is]… attempting to smuggle its deadly climate-wrecking plans past us,” the group claimed.
The people behind ‘BP or Not BP?’ said that on Saturday 23rd November, its volunteers would head to the British Museum in order to stage a ‘reimagining’ of the mythic siege of Troy. The protest will, they claim, include a ‘creative takeover’ of the institution. At the centre of the planned protest will be the newly constructed wooden horse, if sufficient funds are raised.
Of course, many public institutions – including galleries and museums – in the UK now rely on sponsorship deals to fund their special exhibitions and, sometimes, even their permanent collections. However, there is growing public interest in whether it is ethical for museum to accept sponsorship from some businesses.
In fact, the British Museum is no stranger to mass protests. In February 2019, the museum was subject to a campaign of protest over one of its exhibitions which included artefacts taken from Iraq during the period of its Ottoman rule. Known as ‘I am Ashurbanipal’, the protest featured a mass sit-in which caused disruption, albeit peaceful, to the museum’s usual public activities. Indeed, during that protest, BP’s involvement with the British Museum was highlighted by some of the people taking part as another good reason to stage the demonstration.
‘BP or Not BP?’ pointed out that the contribution that big oil industry companies make to issues like global climate change need to be highlighted given the current emergency. The group has drawn attention to the fact that public pressure can cause public institutions to take a more morally courageous line with regard to their funding and sponsorship schemes. “The Royal Shakespeare Company has already committed to dropping BP as a sponsor,” it said on its crowdfunding page. “Now it is time for the British Museum to do the same.”
In 2016, the Tate Group took the decision to ditch BP as a sponsor. Although the association with BP continued until the following year, the gallery group chose to cut its financial ties with the company following several protests in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern gallery in South London. Although the group was keen to point out at the time that BP had been an ‘outstanding example’ of patronage over the years and that the decision was based on the then ‘challenging business environment’, few protestors would argue with the sentiment that their demonstrations speeded up the split.
The question many in the museum sector – as well as climate change activists – are now asking is how long the association between BP and the British Museum will continue if its public relations value becomes increasingly diminished by popular protests.