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The Climate of History: Protest and Performance at the British Museum

By Alex White (@alex_j_white)

On the 8 February 2020, the British Museum became the site of a mass protest for climate justice. The target was the multinational oil and gas provider BP, a long-term partner of the British Museum and the sponsor of a new flagship exhibition entitled ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’.[1] According to the organisers of the protest, the activist group ‘BP or not BP?’, the company’s sponsorship of historical attractions is a form of ‘culture-washing’ which draws attention from their exploitation of the natural world and their support for authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the exhibition’s showy, uncritical style distracts from more contemporary debates within the museum – such as the status of artefacts acquired through colonial force. This combined critique of donor and recipient is particularly interesting: while the protest is primarily a climate demonstration, it also represents an elaborate and inclusive exercise in public history.

At the museum, ‘BP or not BP’ mix their ecological messages with theatrical performance. As I arrive, I notice how many of the protesters have come in historical costumes – as Greek soldiers, as oracles and as oil-stained statues. As the day goes on, organisers and activists arrange processions, songs and talks, culminating in a sit-in in the museum’s Great Court which attracts around 1500 participants.[2] The night before the protest, activists even manage to bring a five-metre tall wooden horse into the museum’s main courtyard – a tongue-in-cheek reference to Troy and the dangers of accepting unsolicited gifts. Some of the activists I speak to help to explain the logic of this performative protest. Traditional protests, one argues, invite traditional resistance: security services can justify dispersing ‘threatening’ crowds but not smaller groups of entertainers. Phil Ball, one of two activists who manned the Trojan Horse, puts it more bluntly. If you trespass into a museum in the dead of night, it’s criminal activity. If you do it inside an enormous wooden set piece, it suddenly becomes performance art.

As the protest goes on, activists reinforce these symbolic ties between history, performance and climate. Under a pair of colossal statues from Turkey, a Kurdish campaigner talks about BP’s partnership with the Erdoğan government to expropriate land for a new oil pipeline. Amongst Persian and Iraqi artefacts, a historian talks about BP’s origins in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and its historical role in lobbying for the Iraq War. As one participant points out, the environmental and historical issues are ultimately linked by the same overwhelming problem: namely, the continuing injustice perpetuated by western corporations against the peoples of the developing world. This injustice manifests itself culturally, but also through the changing environment: indeed, as the journalist David Wallace-Wells has pointed out, one of the cruelties of the ecological crisis is that the postcolonial countries least responsible for climate destruction will be hit hardest and first.[3]

Reactions to the protest are, unsurprisingly, mixed. Several museum visitors mutter dismissively as they pass the protesters. A few members of the public express concerns about the fate of artefacts returned to unstable political regimes, and another calls the cultural protest elitist. One organiser tells me a common argument is that BP’s sponsorship is unfortunate, but a ‘necessary evil’ required to keep the museum running. The British Museum is, admittedly, trying to address the issue on its own terms. Less than a week after the protests, it hosts a lecture exploring climate and its relationship with BP.[4] This summer, it will host a new flagship exhibition about the environment and society, based primarily on artefacts recovered from the melting Arctic permafrost.[5]

Most of the visitors I interview, however, express serious concerns about the ongoing sponsorship. One visitor suggests that museums have a duty to protect the future alongside the past, and several voice concerns that BP is distracting public attention from the issues that matter. They also have hopes for change. When I ask what an ethical museum would look like, one talks about an interactive experience where engaging with the past is more important than looking at authentic artefacts: a reflection of Françoise Vergès’s ‘museum without objects’.[6] Two others suggest a radical space where the instruments of colonial rule are displayed in place of the artefacts they helped to acquire. Ultimately, Phil Ball explains, it may be this capacity for storytelling and persuasion that makes protests based in history so effective. The past may be used to critique the present, but it also encourages participants to imagine a brighter future.

[1] ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’, British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/troy-myth-and-reality

[2] ‘We just occupied the British Museum for 51 hours, against BP sponsorship and colonialism’, BP or Not BP, (Blog Post), 9.2.2020, https://bp-or-not-bp.org/2020/02/09/we-just-occupied-the-british-museum-for-51-hours-against-bp-sponsorship-and-colonialism/

[3] David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (London, 2019), p. 168.

[4] ‘Our 2020 LRB Winter Lectures at the British Museum’, London Review of Books, https://www.lrb.co.uk/pages/standalone/our-2020-lrb-winter-lectures-at-the-british-museum

[5] ‘Arctic treasures exposed by melting ice to go on display’, The Guardian (9.2.2020), https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/jan/09/arctic-treasures-melting-ice-british-museum

[6] Françoise Vergès, ‘A Museum Without Objects’, in Iain Chambers, Alessandra De Angelis, Celeste Ianniciello, Mariangela Orabona and Michaela Quadraro (eds), The Postcolonial Museum: The Arts of Memory and the Pressures of History (Farnham, 2014), pp. 49-67 (pp. 49, 50, 58).

Photograph © Alex J. White.

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