February 12, 2019

British Museum faces biggest ever protest over BP and Iraq

Photo and filming opportunity at 2pm, Saturday 16th February, British Museum Great Court. For more information please contact Danny on +44 (0) 7448494975 or info@bp-or-not-bp.org

London, UK — Hundreds of protesters will take over the British Museum this Saturday 16th February at 2pm, for a mass performance action. The action will challenge the oil giant BP’s sponsorship of an Assyrian exhibition that includes objects from what is now Iraq [1]. Organisers believe it will be the biggest ever protest in the museum’s 260-year history [2].

BP’s role in the Iraq war [3], its contribution to climate change [4] and the oil industry’s negative impacts in Iraq [5] are of particular concern to campaigners, who are holding the protest to mark the sixteen-year anniversary of the record-breaking demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq [6].

The organisers of the performance protest, BP or not BP?, are also pointing to the British Museum’s exhibition itself, which includes ancient Iraqi artefacts originally looted by British explorers [7].

The event is taking place without permission and many details are being kept secret, but organisers have promised to take over the British Museum’s Great Court with movement, voices and props on an unprecedented scale. A spoof film based on BP’s current advertising campaign, made by the group to promote the performance, has been viewed over 100,000 times on Facebook and Twitter, and the hip hop star Lowkey has recorded a message of support.

This will not be the first time the museum’s Assyria exhibition has been targeted by the performance activists. Last November, BP or not BP? set up a fake BP welcoming committee outside the exhibition, with Iraqi activists enacting a protest against the bogus BP spokespeople [8]. This will be the group’s 35th performance inside the museum [9].

As well as the performance action inside the British Museum, a rival exhibition at the nearby P21 Gallery [10] will open on Friday and feature work by artists from Iraq and of Iraqi descent living in the diaspora. As well as celebrating the work of Iraqi artists, the exhibition aims to expose BP’s relationship with Iraq, and its attempts to exploit Iraqi history in order to “artwash” its damaged image.

Maryam Hussain, an Iraqi member of BP or not BP?, said:

“An exhibition featuring looted objects from ancient Iraq, sponsored by an oil company? The British Museum and BP should be ashamed. We have not forgotten, nor forgiven, the role that BP played in lobbying the UK government for access to Iraq’s oil before the 2003 invasion.

“This outrageous exhibition only makes us more adamant in our demands for accountability of those who played a role in the invasion of Iraq. We will continue our fight for the decolonisation of our public institutions and resist the exploitation of people, land and environment by big oil companies.”

Sarah Horne, another member of BP or not BP? said:
“It’s extraordinary that the publicly-funded British Museum is promoting a fossil fuel company in the middle of a climate crisis. BP is actively lobbying against climate laws, blocking clean energy and pushing ahead with ever-riskier drilling projects. The British Museum is helping BP to present a false face to the world, when in reality this rogue company is trampling on people’s rights, profiting from conflicts – especially the Iraq War – and driving us deeper into climate disaster. This dirty sponsorship deal needs to end now.

“If the British Museum is ever to address its colonial past it must also stop promoting companies like BP, who stand accused of neocolonial extractive practices today.”


Notes to editors

[1] http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ashurbanipal.aspx

[2] Previous BP or not BP? performance protests in the museum have involved up to 200 people (see this one for example). Organisers believe this performance will have more attendees (over 500 say they are coming on the Facebook event) – and can find no record in the museum’s history of any larger protest gathering inside the space.

[3] According to UK government documents released under Freedom of Information in 2011, BP were ‘desperate’ to get into Iraq before the 2003 invasion, as it was ‘the big oil prospect’. These quotes came from  one of five meetings in which the Blair government discussed Iraq’s oil with BP and Shell, in the run-up to the war. The companies denied any such meeting took place; it was years later that the meeting minutes were obtained and revealed in the book Fuel on the Fire by Greg Muttitt. BP pushed hard to centre its interests within the UK’s invasion plans – and critics say this makes the company complicit in a war that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the displacement of millions. More information here.

[4] BP has made the third biggest contribution to climate change of any company in history. Its business plan involves continuing to explore for and extract new sources of fossil fuels, despite the fact that scientists say we need to leave 80% of known reserves in the ground and not explore for any more to have a chance of keeping global temperature rises under 2 degrees, let alone the safer 1.5 degree target agreed to at the Paris climate negotiations. BP is a notorious lobbyist in favour of the continued use of fossil fuels, topping the list of firms obstructing climate action in Europe. It has successfully blocked laws to regulate tar sands, cut power plant pollution and accelerate the uptake of renewable energy. More information here.

[5] According to Hassan Juma’a Awad, president of the Iraq Federation of Oil Unions, ‘BP, ExxonMobil and others have systematically been grabbing control over the Iraqi oil industry ever since the U.S. invasion… The people of Iraq gain very little from their own oil industry and in fact have to ask how does it benefit us at all? We get environmental problems, higher cancer rates, but the money doesn’t go to improving conditions for the people.”

See also https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/27/iraq-is-dying-oil-corruption-protest-basra

[6] The performance is happening on February 16th 2019, one day after the anniversary of the Iraq War protests on February 15th 2003.

[7] See https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/art/inside-i-am-ashurbanipal-king-of-the-world-king-of-assyria-at-the-british-museum-1.786643

[8] https://bp-or-not-bp.org/2018/11/07/fake-bp-staff-and-iraqi-protesters-greet-press-at-bp-sponsored-exhibition/

[9] It is the group’s 54th performance overall, including their performances at other oil-sponsored institutions.

[10] http://p21.gallery/exhibitions/exhibition-i-am-british-petroleum-king-of-exploitation-king-of-injustice/