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Activists protesting BP at the British Museum. Photo: Diane More. Courtesy of  BP or not BP?
Activists protesting BP at the British Museum. Photo: Diane More. Courtesy of BP or not BP?

Hundreds Protest BP Sponsorship of British Museum

More than three hundred activists converged on the British Museum in London on Saturday, February 16 to stage one of the largest protests yet against oil sponsorship. Demonstrators formed one large circle in the museum’s Great Court and wielded banners that underscored the UK’s role in helping BP, one of the institution’s longtime sponsors, access Iraqi oil prior to the war in Iraq. They also called out BP’s contribution to climate change.

Led by the activist group BP or not BP?, the action was organized as a rally against the oil giant’s support of the temporary exhibition “I Am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria,” which closes on February 24. The show includes artifacts that were taken from the Assyrian city of Nineveh, which in modern-day Iraq is located located on the outskirts of Mosul. Helen Glynn, a spokesperson for BP or not BP?, told The Guardian that the sponsorship deal with the museum allows the company to claim to be “a good corporate citizen when in fact it is one of the most destructive companies in the world.”

The protest was held a day after the sixteen-year anniversary of the coordinated day of large-scale demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq that took place worldwide in 2003. During the demonstration, activists chanted, carried out performances, and unfurled banners that read “Drop BP” and “Oil x Arms = Iraq War.” One banner featured text taken from UK government documents that were released in 2011. The quote from the UK Foreign Office reads: “Iraq is THE big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there.”

People of Iraqi descent also spoke out. Among those who gave speeches was Yasmin Younis, who said: “When I saw there would be a special exhibition on my culture and my history I was ecstatic because, for once, my culture’s beauty would be celebrated, but finding out the sponsor was BP was a massive slap in the face. These are the very same sponsors who advocated for the war which destroyed my homeland and slaughtered my people all in the name of oil. To BP and the British Museum, I say how dare you use my culture and my history as an attempt to hide your colonialist skeletons. Not my culture, not my country. No war, no warming!”

In response to the action, the museum issued the following statement: “The British Museum respects other people’s right to express their views and allows peaceful protest onsite at the museum as long as there is no risk to the museum’s collection, staff, or visitors. The long-term support provided by BP allows the museum to plan its programming in advance and to bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely popular exhibitions and their associated public programmes. The objects from the British Museum’s collection in ‘I am Ashurbanipal’ exhibition were collected and excavated with the full knowledge and permission of the Ottoman government, who gave permission for the objects to be exported.”

The British Museum is one of several UK cultural institutions to renew sponsorship deals with BP after its contract expired in 2017. The Royal Opera House, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Shakespeare Company also opted to continue their relationship with the oil giant. Tate, however, decided to end its twenty-seven-year relationship with the company. At the time, BP claimed that Tate chose to cut ties because of the “extremely challenging business environment” rather than the years of protests against the controversial sponsorship.