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Viking invasion of the British Museum

By Sunniva Taylor

The London-based British Museum was (peacefully) invaded by uninvited guests four times in June: one Saturday afternoon people – many dressed as Vikings - erected a mobile long ship in the museum's Great Court in an act of vocal performance poetry initiated by the group BP or not BP; on separate lunchtimes visitors to the museum found a group of Quakers and friends holding a Meeting for Worship, surrounded by posters about BP; and on a weekend afternoon members of the Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE), a group of active Buddhist practitioners, held a walking mediation around the museum, reflecting on the link between big oil and climate change.

Viking funeral mock up at the British MuseumViking funeral mock up at the British Museum


Why all this activity? The British Museum is currently in a sponsorship deal with the oil company BP, who are specifically funding and branding a number of special exhibitions. Earlier this year it was the Viking exhibition. The invasions were part of a growing movement of people committed to exposing and questioning how and why fossil fuel companies are sponsoring arts institutions. In London BP also sponsors the Tate gallery, National Portrait Gallery and Royal Opera House.

We are in the midst of an ecological crisis, in which humanity is perpetrating violence on the earth. We are extracting resources in ways that desecrate the environment, and polluting at a scale far greater than ecosystems can absorb. As a consequence we face catastrophic climate change, as well as biodiversity loss; and as a result inflict violence and suffering upon our human neighbours and ourselves, both in the future and today.

Whilst we are all complicit to some degree, we make our choices in the context of the economy and society in which we live. The current economic system is one powered by carbon intensive fossil fuels, and based on the perpetuation of violence – against the earth and other people – to make profit. Fossil fuel companies are at the heart of this, for, as Desmond Tutu said earlier this year 'Twenty-five years ago people could be excused for not knowing much, or doing much, about climate change. Today we have no excuse.' And yet, despite the fact that these companies, such as BP, have more than five times the amount of fossil fuels in their proven reserves than we can afford to burn if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, they continue to search for more and to identify even more extreme ways of extracting. They also lobby governments for greater support and try and prevent a climate agreement which might limit their ongoing ability to extract. And they try to maintain their 'license to operate' by associating themselves with that which is 'good'– such as arts and culture.

Tutu went on to say: 'People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change...[we need to] encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry.' This is what the British Museum activists were doing, alongside people targeting other fossil fuel sponsored arts institutions. It is also what the growing fossil fuel divestment movement attempts to do, by calling for individuals and institutions to stop investing in fossil fuels.

One of the posters laid out at the Quaker Meeting for Worship read ‘We gather in stillness to show love for our earth, and our resistance to powers such as oil company BP, who sponsor British Museum exhibitions.’ Chris Walker, a Quaker present at all four of Meeting for Worship protests to date says: 'I see our worship as a particularly powerful intervention. In being there we held a space that is both peaceful and in tension to that around us'. This creative tension seems to be a thread common to all the actions happening both in the British Museum and elsewhere. They all aim to invoke a conflict by opening up space for people to question the system they live with in, and the powers that control it.Credit: Louisa Wright. Quaker Meeting for Worship at the British MuseumCredit: Louisa Wright. Quaker Meeting for Worship at the British Museum

These actions – from Quakers, DANCE and BP or not BP – were not planned together, but were linked. The DANCE actions were directly inspired by the Quaker meetings for worship, whilst the last Quaker Meeting was deliberately held the day after the BP or not BP ‘Viking invasion’, in order to demonstrate the diversity and scale of concern, and the increasing commitment to action.

Observers of the London direct action scene in recent years might have witnessed an increase in campaigns targeting those institutions that ‘green wash’ the image of damaging corporations. It’s not just fossil fuel companies however – the arms trade also does a sterling job of bolstering their reputation by associating with much-loved museums. Campaign Against Arms Trade is working to get arms dealers out of the arts. Currently putting pressure on the London Transport Museum who are sponsored by Thales, the eleventh largest arms company in the world, they can take credit for having a hand in ‘Disarming the Gallery’: getting the UK’s National Gallery to end a long-standing sponsorship arrangement with weapons manufacturer Finmeccanica in 2012.

These actions feed into each other. Climate campaigners have also seen some successes. Following months of pressure, London’s Southbank Centre suddenly ended its long-running sponsorship deal with Shell earlier in 2014. Tactics spread, they catch on - and targets don’t always catch on at the same speed.

These actions are an example of small groups of individuals enacting pressure on arts institutions for whom reputation is so important. These interactions can feel more empowering than challenging government departments or large corporations. Louisa Wright, who has participated in artistic actions to challenge BP's sponsorship of the Tate, as well protesting about the British Museum's sponsorship deal said: 'I don't want art to be complicit in destruction. Our cultural institutions should be there to create a space for us to think about who we want to be and what life is really about. Not to co-opt us to be part of a violent system. If they aren't going to do that themselves, then we have to help, by intervening and creating that conversation ourselves'.

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