This weekend, climate and anti-colonial activists occupied the British Museum in opposition to its oil sponsorships and refusal to return stolen artifacts. Several rs21 members who took part in the day’s action report.

For many people visiting the British Museum, Saturday 23 April was meant to be a normal day viewing stolen artifacts, eating overpriced food, and perusing the bookshop. However, as people progressed through the exhibitions, not all was as it seemed.

First, hand printed signs kept popping up all over the building – stuck on doors, plaques and more. Emblazoned with the bright green BP logo, these signs explained that the museum was accepting money from the fossil fuel giant. This initial statement was accompanied by a wide variety of facts about BP, whether its relationship with dictatorial regimes or its millions spent yearly opposing climate change legislation.

As quickly as these signs were taken down, more and more seemed to take their place. Eventually, they were joined by placards saying ‘Drop BP’, posters begging trustees to act on the museum’s oil sponsorship, and oily BP logos dropped in donation boxes.

People began handing out flyers explaining the museum was taking money from BP, asking others to join the protest. Some suddenly unfurled banners, singing and chanting in the main entrance. Others stood next to artifacts stolen during colonialism, with signs demanding their return.

By mid-afternoon, the museum was transformed. It was clear hundreds of people were inside protesting. The ‘Africa’ and ‘Americas’ sections of the museum were entirely shut. With so much colonial loot in these areas, museum management would rather close the area than face activists demanding the return of stolen artefacts.

At four pm, a massive BP logo, smuggled into the museum piece by piece, was constructed and lifted by protesters. Hundreds gathered in the main hall, singing for an end to BP sponsorship of the museum and the return of stolen artefacts, whilst raising and lowering the logo. Suddenly, the BP logo was dropped, and split into many pieces. Groups of protestors broke off, setting up in different corners of the museum with the pieces of the BP logo.

Proud to take part in #DropBP at the @britishmuseum.

Our institutions shouldn’t be advertising sites for a fossil fuel industry destroying our future.

— Annabelle Roberts (@AnnabeIIRoberts) April 24, 2022

They then began turning these parts of the BP logo into art, converting them into banners calling for an end to fossil colonialism. Soon, it was closing time. But the protestors refused to move, occupying the nation’s flagship cultural organisation for several hours after closing. Only when museum management called police, threatening mass arrest for aggravated trespass, did the activists decide to finish their art projects and leave.

Activists are repurposing a giant BP logo into works of art that reflect a world without fossil fuels. #DropBP

— BP or not BP? (@drop_BP) April 23, 2022

What the action was and why

The action was organised by BP or not BP?, a collective who have been targeting fossil fuel sponsorship in the arts for a decade, along with groups like Art Not Oil and Culture Unstained. In that time, they have engaged in regular creative actions calling for the cultural sector to refuse to take money from fossil fuel companies – from jumping onto stage to deliver an oil themed Shakespearian speech to getting a trojan horse onto museum grounds. The going has been good. Organisations already pressured into divesting include the National Portrait Gallery, Tate, the Scottish Ballet and more. 

The British Museum is being targeted due to its five-year BP sponsorship deal, currently up for renewal. Last year, George Osborne, architect of the Conservatives’ austerity attacks on the  working class, became the Museum’s Chair. This represents a massive conflict of interest, given Osborne works for a secretive Mayfair-based boutique investment bank closely linked to BP, and is similarly being protested. In addition to this, protestors highlighted the need for the British Museum to return stolen artifacts it looted through colonialism as well as raising the poor treatment of culture sector workers.

Why target fossil fuel sponsorship of the arts? Firstly, sponsorship of the cultural sector is the major way in which fossil fuel companies clean up their image. This greenwashing prevents fossil fuel companies being recognised for the world-destroyers they are. By toxifying their social licence, activists hope to accelerate their shutdown, the expropriation of their assets, and their conversion to renewable energy.

British Museum, 23/4/22. A very dapper visitor calls on museum trustee @Alan_Measles to be on the right side of history & #DropBP sponsorship, while activists highlight institutions which have already ended their partnerships with fossil fuels. #MakeBPHistory @drop_BP

— Ron F (@TheWeeklyBull) April 24, 2022

At the same time, the close relationship between fossil fuel companies and the cultural sector is a major way in which polluters lobby the capitalist state. For example, BP used their sponsorship of the British Museum’s ‘Day of the Dead’ in 2015 to hold informal meetings with the Mexican Government, lobbying for more oil access in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Fossil fuel companies use their sponsorship to buy favours with major figures in capitalist society, securing their companies’ role in fossil capitalism.

This action targeting the British Museum provided a snapshot of a radical environmental politics. The struggle against ongoing colonialism and the need for Britain to make reparations was highlighted in many of the decentralised actions. By focusing on stolen artifacts and fossil colonialism, the actions told a unified story of how the climate crisis originated in the emergence of capitalism through early colonialism.

At the same time, the action focused on the high rate of exploitation of workers in the cultural sector. BP or not BP created a letter to staff explaining their protest and expressing support with the PCS union campaign for better working conditions in the cultural sector. In turn, a small labour-organiser section of the protest was dedicated to having conversations with museum staff about how they can support the protest through their union. This was joined and supported by the PCS Culture Group, as well as the Art Workers Forum.

By linking together the struggle of workers, colonised peoples, and the fight against fossil fuels, this weekend’s action represented a massive step forward in developing a radical climate politics.

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