by Georgia Preece
"Museums and galleries are not just places to display objects: they are spaces for conversation"
Five years after TATE ended its sponsorship deal with BP, the stain of oil sponsorship deals within the cultural sector remains. However, one activist group aims to unpick the facade of legitimacy that arts institutions have afforded the oil industry, while raising awareness of colonialism, class struggle and repatriation amidst climate breakdown.
“BP Or Not BP was founded in 2012, when BP was sponsoring the Royal Shakespeare Company.” says Danny, one of the original members of the Shakespeare inspired movement. “We would jump on stage and do a performance in a Shakespearean style, in costume, drawing together the themes of the play that was happening, but making it all about BP and climate change.”
In 2019, the RSC ended its relationship with BP after the youth strikers joined the campaign. But the RSC isn’t alone: when a Culture Unsustained investigation revealed a gagging clause within the Science Museum’s sponsorship deal with Shell pledging not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of the oil brand, they were met by fierce opposition from activist groups.
As opposition for oil sponsorship increases and awareness grows, climate justice movements are beginning to confront the intersectional issues of climate breakdown, with repatriation and colonialism being bought to the forefront. And in one institution above all, it is being laid bare.
“Something we really want to highlight is the links between the British Museum, colonialism and oil extraction.” Explains Andrea, another member of BP or Not BP. The group have been running stolen goods tours of the Museum to raise public awareness of the colonial heritage on display. “We’re standing in solidarity with communities most affected by climate change, BP pipelines, and the British Empire, as well as having had artefacts stolen from their communities.”
At home, as well, there is an importance of putting those most affected at the forefront of the movement. “I’ve been working in the cultural sector for five years now.” says Bayryam, who joined the group while working as front of house staff at Tate. “I knew that I loved working in museums, but the inside influence I had was very limited. All sponsored institutions, museums and galleries are not just places to display objects, they are spaces for conversation.”
The need for climate action is urgent. However, a movement which doesn’t consider the overlaying connections between ecology, gender violence, class struggle, human rights and colonialism risks extending, rather than solving, the problem. By representing a web of injustices, BP Or Not BP avoids being a single issue campaign group.
“As an immigrant myself, I never felt pressured into doing an action, or not to do an action”, says Bayryam. “Organising can take a big emotional toll, but there’s always this conversation about what each person can bring to the table and how we can best support people with their own creative ideas and their own capabilities”.
Through their creative protest style, BP or not BP are utilising storytelling as a tool for world building, and for facilitating societal change.