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Sunken Cities are not a thing of the past

Posted by Elena Polisano - 19th May 2016


Right now 14 activists are scaling the British Museum to call on the institution to drop BP’s sponsorship. Here’s why they’re doing it.

Today is the opening day of new BP-sponsored blockbuster exhibition, “Sunken Cities.” For the museum, it’s the launch of their biggest event of the year (it looks spectacular). But in the eyes of BP, whose logo appears all over the show, it’s an exquisite opportunity to clean up its image and distract from the polluting realities of its business.

We can’t let that happen.

The British Museum dedicates itself to learning, discovery and the conservation of human cultures, but the only discoveries BP seeks are more fossil fuels to dig up and burn which are already polluting our air and warming our world. We’re here today taking a stand because of the irony of an oil company sponsoring an exhibition whose name practically spells out impacts of climate change. What were they thinking?

We wanted to be imaginative, so we rebranded the exhibition and dressed the pillars at the entrance with five places that evoke flooding, extreme weather and rising sea levels in the 21st century. Among them there’s New Orleans, a city almost lost in Hurricane Katrina, and also British towns like Hebden Bridge that were submerged by floods last winter.

BP’s cash contributes less than 1% of the British Museum’s annual income, but the benefits it can glean from cosying up to the UK’s most popular cultural attraction can be priceless.

Oil companies use partnerships with our most popular cultural institutions to protect their business interests, cover up negative news coverage and promote an air of respectability. BP, for example, positions itself as a “cultural supporter,” which you’d have to agree does sound softer than, “the company responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, one of the world’s worst environmental disasters of all time.”

However, in the last couple of weeks, this PR strategy has started to unravel for BP in a big way:

  • In March Tate ended its long-term partnership with BP, after escalating protests against the oil company moved the cultural icon to act to protect its reputation. Then the Edinburgh International Festival did the same. There’s a shift happening that mirrors how tobacco sponsorship fell away from acceptability about thirty years ago.
  • In April, there was a letter signed by former chief scientific adviser to the European commission Prof. Anne Glover, Mark Ruffalo and nearly 100 others calling on the British Museum’s new director to drop BP. We’re here today to make sure it doesn’t slip down Dr Hartwig Fischer’s to-do list.
  • In May, the Art Not Oil coalition revealed how BP influenced decision-making at the British Museum to further its oil plans. Having insisted that the sponsorship was “no strings attached,” it turns out BP directly benefits from the relationship, like using an exhibition to seek access to government figures just before bidding opened for new oil drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • And meanwhile shareholders voted overwhelming against the bumper pay rise of the chief executive. Ouch.

Sunken cities aren’t a thing of the past, they are happening now. And if BP gets its way, they could come to define our future. We think every visitor passing through the famous columns today, and anyone who wants to imagine a culture beyond oil, deserves a say in whether it’s okay for a company whose business contributes to climate change to make it past the bag checks. We hope many of you will join the call for the British Museum to drop BP.


Article Tagged as: Climate, Featured, BP


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