Right now, I am stood in the British Museum’s Great Court, beneath its vaulted glass ceiling. In front of me, inside a clear glass bottle, is a piece of thick, crude oil, taken from the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico – the toxic remains of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill. Alongside it are nine other objects all placed on black plinths, from a tear gas cartridge found in Tahrir Square to a West Papuan flag, and from an Arpillera tapestry sewn by Latin American activists to a photo of a Colombian trade unionist. Each object tells a story of BP’s impacts around the world and together they ask: why does the British Museum continue to be sponsored by this corporate criminal?
Inspired by the British Museum’s own blockbuster exhibition, A History of the World in 100 Objects, we have curated our own unauthorized exhibition: A History of BP in 10 Objects. But this isn’t really “our” exhibition. The exhibition reveals ways that BP erodes cultures and traditions, damages and destroys ecosystems, and represses and fragments communities – but from the perspectives of those who have experienced those impacts and sent the objects that are on display today. As well as artefacts directly linked to BP, the exhibition also includes items linked to the broader issue of corporate influence within public arts and culture. Objects have been donated by the museum workers’ union PCS, to highlight the growing threat of museum privatisation, and from construction workers whose names were held on an illegal blacklist by the Museum’s facilities contractor, Carillion
Tomorrow will be the first day at work for the museum’s new director, Hartwig Fischer. He is no doubt already aware of the controversy surrounding BP’s sponsorship of the museum and other cultural institutions. Just a few weeks ago, we found out that after 26 years, BP’s sponsorship of Tate would not be renewed. Now, the pressure is on the British Museum to follow in Tate’s wake, and Hartwig Fischer can make that happen. In his last job, he was no stranger to taking an ethical stand and spoke at demonstrations opposing the far-right Pegida movement. He even persuaded the government to let him hang banners outside the State Art Collections in Dresden, with the words, “Works from Five Continents. A House Full of Foreigners”.
Many Indigenous peoples and those in the global South feel the impacts of BP’s dirty drilling and its contribution to climate change every day. The British Museum claims to promote and celebrate the traditions of many of these peoples while its sponsor actively erodes them. BP is at odds with the museum’s own stated ethics and values. For the museum to renew its sponsorship deal with this relic of a company and continue to give BP legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve would be unthinkable.
Benny Wenda, the West Papuan independence leader, told us about the object he gave to the exhibition:
“I give this flag on behalf of my people of West Papua who continue to suffer and die under illegal occupation and genocide fuelled by BP. We West Papuans have witnessed our sacred lands destroyed by multinational corporations just to make more profit for the Indonesian government. While we West Papuans are imprisoned for 15 years just for raising our national flag, you have the freedom to speak out.”
As Benny says, now is the time to use the freedoms we have and speak out. Today, we’ve launched a petition to the new director, urging him to drop BP. But also, when our exhibition closes at the end of today, we’ll be preparing the objects to be given as a formal gift to the museum and the nation. This means that the museum’s trustees will have to formally consider whether to accept the objects into their permanent collection. To reject them would, yet again, be turning a blind eye to the injustices of its sponsor.
For the last twenty years, BP has sponsored the British Museum. Over that same period, it has been linked to countless human rights and environmental abuses, while pursuing a business plan that will make runaway climate change inevitable. It’s time the British Museum was liberated from this colonial company and instead took a lead in the shift to a fossil free culture. As Cherri Foytlin, a Gulf Coast resident who submitted a film for the exhibition, said:
“Since 2010, there are a lot more graves in the Gulf of Mexico than there were before, and that’s just the truth. So any time we see arts organisations take on BP as a sponsor, we want to make sure those institutions understand that they are sponsoring death. They are sponsoring death in our communities.”
A History of BP in 10 Objects comprises:
Crude oil from the Louisiana coastline following the BP Deepwater Horizon spill
Lamassu charm from Iraq, where BP encouraged the Western invasion and is now operating
Photo of Colombian trade unionist Gilberto Torres, who is currently suing BP for its role in his kidnap and torture
Flag of independence from West Papua, where BP is supporting Indonesia’s repression of the West Papuan people
Tear gas cartridge from Tahrir Square, Egypt, where BP is the biggest foreign investor
Arpillera embroidery from Mexican and Latin American solidarity groups in London
Hard hat from blacklisted construction workers - the museum also works with blacklisting firm Carillion
Black confetti from Liberate Tate, used to celebrate Tate and BP parting company this March
Oil lamp rescued from Calder Valley floods on Boxing Day 2015
Waira Indigenous shamanic healing tool from Colombia
Photo album of images from communities living next to BP's Whiting refinery in Indiana, by photographer Terry Evans
A photograph of Bunna Lawrie, Indigenous Mirning Traditional Owner, and the call for submissions of the Australian Senate inquiry into BP’s controversial plans to drill in the Great Australian Bight where he recently spoke.
Painted sunflower from No Privatisation at the National Gallery campaign by PCS Union members – the union, which also represents British Museum workers, is committed to ending oil sponsorship of culture