Flashmob protest sets sights on British Museum

A group of actors are planning to stage a 'Shakespearian flashmob' this weekend in protest of BP arts sponsorship

New Statesman
Anti BP protesters gather outside the BP portrait awards 2011, at the National Portrait Gallery, London (Photo credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

The British Museum is this weekend set to be the target of a new protest over its sponsorship by BP.

The Reclaim Shakespeare Company are a group of actors who have already staged eight pop-up protests around the country in response to the oil companies arts sponsorship programme. On Sunday, they plan to stage a flashmob with over 100 participants in the British Museum’s Great Hall, in opposition to BP sponsorship of its ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ exhibition.

Believing that our cultural heritage is tarnished by association with the oil multinational, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company have coined the slogan ‘BP or not BP?’ to front their campaign, which has so far involved invading the stage at several Royal Shakespeare Company theatre productions.

This weekend's flashmob, entitled ‘Out Damn Logo’ will constitute their ‘grand finale’. A recent press release explains their belief that BP is a ‘destructive’ company and defends their actions on the basis that it 'should not be allowed to use our cultural institutions to greenwash its image'.

BP is a significant name in British cultural sponsorship. Last year, they pledged £10 million in support of several of the countries’ most prestigious arts institutions - the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House and Tate Britain, as well as sponsorship of the London Olympics and Cultural Olympiad.

However, despite these financial rewards, controversy has plagued these sponsorship deals since their inception. Regular protests from several campaign groups have been ignited in response to oil company support for art centres throughout the UK. The Tate galleries have also come under huge criticism for their lucrative sponsorship deal with Shell, including protests which involved hanging dead fish from dozens of black helium balloons in the Turbine hall and re-creating fake oil spills at the Tate Summer Party.

The argument that BP is an insufficiently ethical company gained added credence yesterday when BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter and accepted a record $4.5 billion fine to resolve criminal charges relating to their 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Tate’s ethics policy specifically states that ‘Tate will not accept funds in circumstances when…. funds are tainted through being the proceeds of criminal conduct'. Whether the recent BP settlement consistutes a breach of this policy is debateable, however it certainly casts shadows over the Tate's choice of fundraising partner.

Nonetheless, supporters of corporate arts sponsorship have for years been keenly pressing the argument that free museums are one of the highlights of the UK’s cultural landscape, and without sponsorship deals, they cease to be a viable financial possibility. Public funding for arts institutions has suffered extensively from government cuts in recent years, and alternate options for museum funding are not looking promising.

High-profile supporters of oil company sponsorship have included Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s art critic who has previously stated ‘the BP art campaign is mistargeted, misconceived and massively self-indulgent...  The involvement of BP obviously makes it easier for galleries like the Tate to work at the world-class level they do and remain free. Either museums are going to survive and be first-rate in these challenging times, or they are going to be reduced to sad shells of themselves.’

Richard Howlett of the Reclaim Shakespeare company responded:

“We reject this assertion. We believe it is possible to have a thriving arts sector that is not being used by hugely destructive oil companies for their own gain. The RSC is one of the one of the UK's richest theatre companies. Just £2.3m of their £32m turnover is from sponsorship and donations.”

So far neither the British Museum nor the Tate have given any indication that they are considering ceasing their sponsorship deals. A spokesperson from the British Museum press office recently told the Independent:

"We are standing firm on our statement on BP sponsorship. We are grateful to BP for their long term commitment to the Museum, which allows us to share the vision that our artistic programmes should be made available to the widest possible audience, but we appreciate the Reclaim Shakespeare Company's right to protest and there is no ill feeling there."