Dozens of protesters, dressed in orange and green flowing costumes to represent the burning environment, gathered at the British Museum on Saturday while youth activists staged a separate demonstration at the Science Museum. Both events aimed to pressure the institutions to sever ties with oil corporations.
The theatrical activist group BP or not BP staged a protest at the British Museum in response to the oil company’s sponsorship of Nero: The Man Behind the Myth, the museum’s next big exhibition, due to open on 27 May.
Three professional violinists draped in green costumes performed inside the Great Court at the British Museum, alongside a “choir of fire” wearing orange and yellow outfits with headdresses of paper flames. The performance likened BP to Emperor Nero himself – “fiddling while the planet burns” – to draw attention to those affected by wildfires around the world.
Vanessa Downie, one of the violinists, said: “We always want to raise awareness about BP actively contributing to global warming with its huge appetite for oil and gas extraction.
“We want to point out the additional irony in BP sponsoring an exhibition about the dictator Nero, when the company itself has a long history of partnering with repressive regimes in countries where it operates.
“We see this as a powerful approach to winning raising awareness around BP’s destructive greed, and the increasingly urgent need for cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels.”
In 2016, BP announced a five-year, £7.5m sponsorship of the arts which began in 2018 and includes the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). While longstanding deals with Tate and the Edinburgh international festival were not renewed, and the RSC ended its sponsorship deal with BP two years early, other cultural institutions continue to accept money from oil companies.
According to the campaign group, BP sponsorship provides less than 1% of the British Museum’s annual income. These cultural deals are up for renewal this year, and for Danny, who helped organise the protest, the British Museum is making an “active choice” in upholding its sponsorship with BP.
He said: “They’re choosing to stick with the sponsor, and they are actively making a choice to keep propping up a company that is incredibly complicit in the climate crisis.”
Also on Saturday, youth activists from UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) led a protest at the Science Museum, in response to a new climate exhibition sponsored by Shell.
Izzy Warren, 17, from west London, who was attending the demonstration, said: “In the past, drawing links between oil sponsorship and the impact of climate change has been hard. When you’ve got an exhibition on climate change and solutions being sponsored by an oil company, there is something very wrong with that, and I think that’s why this one has got a lot of attention.”
On Tuesday, the group launched a boycott of the new exhibition, Our Future Planet, after the museum ignored an open letter demanding the Science Museum drop its Shell sponsorship, backed by more than 170 scientists and climate organisations.
Shell has come under huge pressure from shareholders voting for carbon emission reductions, while the International Energy Agency has said investments in new oil and gas exploration need to end if the world is to reach net zero by 2050.
Warren added: “I think it is a very cheap way for oil companies to have social licence in our museums to operate and make it seem like they are contributing more good. In reality, they are destroying our planet, and destroying people’s homes and people’s livelihoods.”
A spokesperson for the Science Museum said: “We received a peaceful protest from UKSCN today. It took place without incident and visitors continued to have safe access to the inspiration of our museum and to the vaccination centre.”