A Slick Mystery: Holmes and Watson confront the oily criminal BP in the British Museum

A Slick Mystery: Holmes and Watson confront the oily criminal BP in the British Museum

Date: 12 February 2015

On Sunday 8 February, twenty people entered the British Museum and launched into a guerrilla theatre performance in the Great Court, to the surprise of museum visitors and staff. The play, which featured a moustached Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson searching for the BP ‘criminal’ hiding in the museum, challenged the British Museum’s controversial funding relationship with BP.

The performance, by activist theatre troupe ‘BP or not BP’, involved Holmes and Watson interviewing an evasive ‘Neil MacGregor’ character (the museum director), with the help (or hindrance) of a pack of bumbling police officers. In the play the detectives accused MaGregor of covering up BP’s crimes with a cozy museum sponsorship deal, but as he desperately tried to redirect their gaze to current exhibits, a human ‘oil spill’ spread slowly down the museum steps and engulfed MacGregor’s feet.

As the villain was revealed, a large banner was unfurled reading ‘BP: The World’s Biggest Corporate Criminal’, referring to BP’s $4.5 billion fine for their role in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster, and leaflets were handed out to explain the protest in more detail.

A large crowd gathered to watch the performance both inside the Great Court and when the troupe repeated the play on the steps outside. The play ended with Holmes and Watson entreating the public to help them rid the museum of the oily criminal (as “I say, the police aren’t really up to this. We need help!”).

The museum staff were generally accommodating and let the performance go on unhindered, while the response from onlookers was largely one of interest and appreciation; hearing parents explaining to their curious children about BP, and their role as the play’s villain, is testament to how intriguing and effective this form of creative protest can be.

This action is part of a mounting pressure on museums and galleries that have links with oil companies, as oil sponsorship is being increasingly flagged as ‘cultural greenwash’, and a form of cheap advertising.

Last month, for example, the Tate was forced by the Information Tribunal to disclose the details of the funding it receives from BP. It was revealed that over the last 17 years, the Tate received an annual average of £224,000 from BP, which is less than half a percent of the Tate’s annual income. In the same week, performance-intervention group Liberate Tate threw £224,000 of fake BP-Tate money from the highest point inside Tate Britain in an eeries performance they called The Reveal.

Although the British Museum figures are not yet public, the it’s believed to receive a similarly small sum from BP (less than 1% of its funding) and, like in the Tate, the oil company receives a huge amount of high-profile branding in return. This means that not only are these public institutions selling themselves to an unethical sponsor, they are selling themselves cheaply (the annual cost of buying the Tate’s ‘greenwash’ is roughly equivalent to a 30-second TV advert during the X-Factor final).

BP or not BP are part of the ‘Art Not Oil’ coalition, which uses creative means to protest oil companies’ sponsorship of the arts. By nature, they look for creative ways to make the environmental issues associated with oil companies, particularly climate change, which is a notoriously difficult issue to engage with, seem less alien. These methods of protest are also really fun for those involved, and have a tendency to appeal to public interested in the arts institutions in question, which is essential if in order to maintain public pressure on institutions like the British Museum.

As Chris Garrard said, ‘This year the Museum’s trustees will debate whether to renew their give-year deal with this corporate criminal. All over the world, institutions are breaking their financial ties with fossil fuel companies… The British Museum needs to drop BP, or it will find itself on the wrong side of history”.

BP or not BP invite you to join them on Sunday 29th March for the ‘Flashmob’ at the British Museum.

Email: [email protected] to get involved, and spread the word! 

You can also sign the petition at: www.dropbp.org

There will also be a divestment action in London on Saturday 14 February to mark Global Divestment Day 2015. The protest will be calling upon the General London Assembly and Boris to end their pension fund’s investments in fossil fuels. These stand at an estimated £100 million.

Diana Salazar from Colombia Solidarity Campaign and Rumana Hashem from the Phulbari Solidarity Group will be speaking at the event, raising awareness of the role of UK investment and UK-listed mining companies in human and ecological rights abuses relating to fossil fuel extraction.

For those of you who are London-based, below is the official event call out. Here are links to the facebook event, a petition and Divest London’s event page