To Win or Not to Win: What we can learn from BP Or Not BP?’s win at the British Museum

BP or not BP? have campaigned consistently for over a decade against the green washing of the arts. Their actions are iconic because of their bold creativity, musical flare and their commitment to solidarity with frontline communities affected by BP’s extractivism. Across the years of their campaigns they’ve had many wins including BP also being dropped by the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the National Portrait Gallery, which had all been part of a “block” sponsorship deal announced in 2016. They were also visible allies in the incredible win of Art Not Oil group Liberate Tate when they managed to get Tate to drop BP as a sponsor in 2016.


Fossil fuel companies using cultural institutions to try and improve their image isn’t new and whilst it might not seem like the biggest issue that we’re facing when it comes to these disruptive companies, their relationship to the arts is an essential part of them painting themselves as reputable respected organisations. What’s more, we know that BP have often used the resources of the British Museum to host guests from world governments  and the fossil fuel industry as a way to wine and dine them and further their agenda. The British Museum is by no means free of criticism and hoards one of the biggest collections of stolen colonial items in the UK. But for many the British Museum is seen as a respected cultural institution and BP’s presence here was a way for them also to pose as a generous philanthropist rather than a major polluter.

The fight against BP sponsorship of the British Museum is one that has spanned decades, a fight that has had points of frustration, consistent innovation of tactics and, fundamentally, relied on the hope and persistence of a small group of dedicated volunteers and the wider movement they helped to build and inspire.  

Over the years we’ve invited you to their actions, shared their successes and turned up ourselves to what have been some of the most flamboyant, most well organised, and song filled actions we’ve participated in. I have been lucky enough to organise and strategise along with BP or not BP? on several occasions and play various glamorous roles in their creative actions, not least helping to smuggle a giant kraken puppet into the British Museum

BP or not BP? and Culture Unstained have been a constant source of inspiration for me in the UK climate movement and I want to outline some of the key learnings I think we can all take forward from this incredibly well deserved win.

Number one: Persistence.

Sometimes our enemy feels much bigger than us and we all know the power that BP holds. Similarly, as an iconic cultural institution the British Museum was never going to budge easily and despite the money they got from BP being proportionately quite small to the benefits BP received, the British Museum  consistently sided with the fossil fuel company. For many individuals or groups of activists, years and years of the British Museum renewing their relationship with BP might have ended their campaign attempts. It could be that behind closed doors, BP or not BP? were feeling the frustration and temptation to give up, but to the British Museum, the general public, and the rest of us in the movement, instead they met the British museums failure to respond with bigger, bolder more participatory actions and never wavered in their commitment to winning.

 Number two:  Frontline solidarity.

BP Or Not BP? and Culture Unstained have consistently worked with communities affected by BP’s extractivism. They have prioritised working with communities related to or impacted by the exhibitions that BP have sponsored, communities destroyed by BP’s fossil fuel projects, and communities affected by climate impacts. What’s more, they have worked with people from communities that the British Museum have stolen objects from. For example, for their 43rd performance they collaborated with Indigenous Australian activist Rodney Kelly to host series of rebel lectures in the British Museum calling for the return of his ancestor’s stolen shield and an end to BP’s sponsorship of Indigenous cultures


Number three: Creativity. 

Across the years BP or Not BP?’s performance based actions attracted the attention of the media, guests at the museum, the wider climate movement and perhaps most importantly BP themselves. By treating their actions as performances, they were able to make their protests engaging, but also highlight the links between fossil fuels and the Arts and they were also engaging for visitors of the cultural institutions they were targeting. Some of the most impressive actions were those where people were invited to turn up and participate without any prior instruction other than costuming and be part of a huge scale performance that dominated the entire Great Court of the British Museum. Their unparalleled creativity no doubt is what made that actions feel so joyful and also allowed a diversity of tactics that made a decade long fight feel new and exciting every time.


Number four: Solidarity with Workers.

British Museum workers were often expected to prevent or disrupt BP or not BP? actions, seizing props during entry searches or simply attempting to move people along. Despite this, BP or not BP? regularly showed up to support the PCS Union, which represents workers at many museums and galleries including the British Museum, at strikes and other protests. This wasn’t just to show face, but because it was clear that our struggles for liberation are linked and so much injustice is rooted in a powerful few dictating the lives and rights of the rest of us, including the exploitation of workers. In fact, the campaign to kick Shell out of the National Theatre was later spearheaded by arts workers, something that grew out of building these relationships between our different movements. By repeatedly showing up, they consistently linked our fights and demonstrated the need for practical solidarity across our movements.

Number five: Believe it can happen.

Perhaps the most hopeful lesson to learn is that we can win. Our enemies are huge, our goal is essential, sometimes the fight feels overwhelming and the actions we take feel insignificant and not enough. But if BP Or Not BP? only teach you one thing let it be that small actions can take on even the mightiest of enemies especially when you weave in joy, determination and the occasional plot to smuggle in a giant kraken puppet. 

Wins like this show us that the tide is turning, the age of fossil fuels is ending,  and the more of us that organise together the faster we will get to the future we deserve.

Congratulations again to all of our friends at BP or not BP, Culture Unstained and the wider Art Not Oil movement and congratulations to all of you who have ever attended or supported one of these actions.

Together we are powerful. Let’s keep winning. 

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