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Why Greenpeace protesters scaled the British Museum

Activists staged a protest against the new BP-sponsored Sunken Cities exhibition, highlighting the bitter irony of an oil company sponsoring a climate-focused event

Yesterday morning, the British Museum closed its doors, as environmental activists staged a protest in retaliation to oil giant BP’s sponsorship of its latest exhibition on ancient Egypt.

The Greenpeace activists hung banners from the building’s front columns with various city names – New Orleans, Hebden Bridge, Boscastle – referencing the places affected by extreme flooding caused by climate change. Poignant, as the British Museum’s Sunken Cities highlights underwater archaeology. Citing “visitor safety reasons”, the museum closed for four hours before reopening.

Earlier in the week, guerilla group BP or not BP protested in the museum’s Great Court. In the morning, the Sunken Cities exhibit was gatecrashed by a group of performers, who erected artwork exposing the irony of the oil company and museum’s partnership. A statement from BP or not BP said the artwork was “formed of crude oil from the Gulf Coast, a teargas cartridge from Cairo’s Tahrir Square and 340 lines of black stones, the art piece symbolises how BP’s operations in Egypt are ‘surrounded by human rights violations’”. The group was also present during the press viewing.

The oil giant-sponsored exhibition contains artefacts from Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion, cities submerged in the 8th century.

Elena Polisano, from Greenpeace, said there were 85 activists from Greenpeace present yesterday to hang the 27-foot-long banners for their ‘Sinking Cities’ counter-show. “We have a really, really big team,” she said. “There are 14 climbers, and they've been practicing especially for this using very particular technique and gear, to make sure that we knew that we were doing it safely for everybody who’s going to be visiting the museum.”

“The idea that somewhere like the British Museum is being used to sort of a glorified meeting room for oil companies to do business leaves a real sour taste in the mouth” – Elena Polisano

“We chose the opening day of the new BP sponsored 'Sunken Cities' exhibition to point out that the massive irony of an oil company that’s responsible for such environmental destruction sponsoring one of the most popular cultural institutions in the UK that's dedicated to conservation; it's actually the opposite. We couldn’t believe it when we first heard of the exhibition, late last year, and that BP thought that it could continue to use the British Museum to clean up its image.

Polisano points out the exhibition name, ‘Sunken Cities’, pretty much spells out some of the impact of climate change, accelerated by the work of fossil fuel-based companies like BP. They mimicked the exhibit branding and dropped seven banners from the tall columns. “We reference some places that had been affected by the extreme flooding via destructive storms and other weather, then of course rising sea levels. Now it’s back open, people are getting a good look at it,” she said.

Serious pressure from art and activist groups saw the Tate put an end to their sponsorship deal with BP, finishing in 2017. Evidence from the collective Art Not Oil also revealed BP’s “serious influence” over the exhibitions taking place in some of the UK’s top cultural institutions, including the British Museum. It also highlighted their inclusion in security workshops specifically to stop protests, as well as specific events BP inserted them into, such as a Mexican-themed Day of the Dead evening, while they were negotiating with Mexican officials for work around the Gulf Coast. A recent letter from art figureheads was also sent to the museum’s director, calling for an end to their sponsorship. Now, the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery are in the process of reviewing their partnership with the energy company.

“They’re really feeling the heat now in the last couple of weeks,” said Polisano. “The Edinburgh International Festival and the Tate caved in as a result of escalating protests because of the visible, unlikely and ultimately untenable association with oil companies. It’s all eyes on them now to see whether they make the right choice and stop promoting BP's reputation.”

The Greenpeace activist likened it to the anachronistic ideals of tobacco sponsorhips. She said: “It's starting to look very strange for oil companies and cultural institutions. These cultural institutions aren’t here to prop up the reputation of oil companies. BP just a few years ago was responsible for deep-water horizon, oil-instilled disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. They’re using the British Museum to lobby decision makers in government and policy makers. While they prettify their image, they're digging up more and more fossil fuels. The idea that somewhere like the British Museum is being used to sort of a glorified meeting room for oil companies to do business leaves a real sour taste in the mouth.”

BP’s financial contribution to the British Museum only accounts for less than 1 per cent of its annual income: as Polisano points out, the museum really doesn’t need BP. Polisano observed: “Their business is climate change: the only culture they can see us having is an oil-dependent one. We wanted to come here to really say it loud to the museum that it's time to end it with BP.”

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told the Guardian: “Police were called at 09:26hrs on Thursday, 19 May to reports of protesters at the British Museum.”

A BP spokesman said: “BP has a long history as a major supporter of arts and culture in the UK and we are proud to have partnered the British Museum for 20 years, supporting significant exhibitions such as the new Sunken Cities exhibition.”