February 16, 2019

British Museum hit by biggest ever protest over BP and Iraq

Press release by BP or Not BP? Photos and film footage available on request. For more information please contact Danny on +44 (0) 7448494975 or info@bp-or-not-bp.org


London, UK — More than 300 people took over the British Museum today to create a giant 200-metre “living artwork” that circled the entire Great Court, in protest at BP sponsorship. Organisers believe this to be the biggest ever protest in the museum’s 260-year history [1]. The action took place to challenge the oil giant’s sponsorship of an Assyrian exhibition that includes objects from what is now Iraq [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 held the protest to mark yesterday’s 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 performers did not request permission for this event, but museum security did not intervene as hundreds of black-clad performers sang, processed, and formed a huge circle around the central rotunda of the Great Court. The group then revealed 200 metres of black fabric – which they had smuggled into the museum – featuring words and symbols representing the connections between BP sponsorship, climate change, looted artefacts and the Iraq War. This design incorporated artwork by the Kurdish Iraqi artist Mariwan Jalal. Together, the performers and the fabric surrounded the central reading room of the museum with a giant “living tapestry” which remained in place for half an hour.

The protest performance then moved to the entrance of the Assyria exhibition itself, where participants sat down, filling the floor with people and tapestry pieces that read “OIL x ARMS = IRAQ WAR” and “DROP BP”. A banner was revealed containing a notorious 2002 quote from the UK Foreign Office, uncovered many years later through Freedom of Information: “Iraq is THE big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there”. This comment was made by government officials to describe the oil company’s intentions when it was lobbying the government for access to Iraq’s oil just before the 2003 invasion [8].

Words and messages from Iraq were read out and chanted by the crowd, and participants of Iraqi descent spoke of their own personal experiences of the Iraq War and of the current situation in Iraq today.

One speaker, Zeena Yasin, shared a personal story to illustrate the real human impacts of the invasion of Iraq:

“During the bombing of Mosul against ISIS, which is a direct consequence of the western invasion of Iraq – the husband of my auntie wanted to aid his neighbours. His wife begged him not to, worrying for his safety. Because of his bravery, strength and chivalry, he went in an attempt to save his relatives. Alas, the house he went to was bombed and he was one of the casualties. Because of the destruction of infrastructure and transport, she could not get him to the hospital in time. It was not safe enough to get a taxi or get on a bus. She pushed him on a pushchair for hours and he succumbed to his injuries on the way.”

A second speaker, Yasmin Younis, said:

“When I saw there would be a special exhibition on my culture and my history, I was ecstatic because for once, my culture’s beauty would be celebrated, but finding out the sponsor was BP was a massive slap in the face. These are the very same sponsors who advocated for the war which destroyed my homeland and slaughtered my people all in the name of oil. To BP and the British Museum, I say how DARE you use my culture and my history as an attempt to hide your colonialist skeletons. Not my culture, not my country. No war, no warming!”

Participants then wrote two hundred personal messages on slips of paper which were displayed and then handed in to the museum, demanding that it ends its relationship with BP, returns stolen objects and addresses its colonial past.

Finally, the performers processed outside and used the giant fabric pieces to fill the museum’s front steps for another 30 minutes while Ilaf, an Iraqi spoken word artist (@revolutionbywords) performed a specially-written poem about BP and Iraq.

This was not 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 [9]. Today was the group’s 35th performance inside the museum [10].

As well as the performance action inside the British Museum, a rival exhibition at the nearby P21 Gallery [11] opened yesterday, featuring 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 culture in order to “artwash” its damaged image.

Also yesterday, campaigns and research group Culture Unstained released a new briefing called “From war to warming: BP’s shameful history in Iraq” [12], telling the story of BP and its negative impacts in Iraq, past and present.

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 activities around the world today.”


Notes to editors

[1] Previous BP or not BP? performance protests in the museum have involved up to 200 people (see this one for example). Organisers can find no record in the museum’s history of any larger protest gathering inside the space.

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

[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. For more information, see behindthelogos.org/iraq

[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] See [3], above, for the source of this quote

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

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

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

[12] behindthelogos.org/iraq