New Internationalist

Why did the British Museum try to sink our Viking longship protest?

longship.jpg [Related Image]
© Hugh Warwick

Dear Mr MacGregor,

As you know, on 15 June we held a ‘flashmob’ Viking-themed performance inside London’s British Museum in protest at BP’s sponsorship of the Viking Exhibition, and of the museum as a whole.

This was the seventh protest that our group has held at the museum. On previous occasions, you have respected our freedom of expression and allowed our performances to go ahead with minimal interference from security staff. This time, however, things were different.

Security staff had clearly been instructed to exclude known members of our group from the building, and so four of us were refused entry. Harmless cardboard props and pieces of costume were confiscated at the doors, and worst of all, a man was arrested for having a polite conversation with a security guard about whether or not he was allowed to enter with a cardboard shield.

Why this change in tactics? Security staff claimed that the exclusions were due to our failure to seek permission to protest, but we have never sought permission from you before, and did not receive such an over-the-top response for any of our six previous protests. You know from past experience that we are a performance group who pose no threat of any kind to the public, your staff or the exhibits.

We have even held a publicly-advertised flashmob before, in November 2012, to protest against BP sponsorship of the Shakespeare Exhibition. On that occasion, you again searched everyone’s bags on entry but only for items that might cause harm or damage (we had nothing of the sort, of course). You did not, on that occasion, confiscate pieces of costume or exclude anyone from the building, let alone encourage the police to arrest a man on false charges*. This is a clear escalation of tactics on your part.

These are extraordinary lengths to go to in order to protect the brand and reputation of your sponsor, BP. As if it wasn’t bad enough that you are providing them with cheap PR that helps to deflect attention from their real, destructive activities around the world, your security guards have seemingly been ordered to act as BP’s private brand police. This is clearly unacceptable for an institution that is overwhelmingly funded by visitors, members and taxpayers (BP’s contribution represents, on the other hand, less than 1 per cent of your annual income).

The only explanation we can think of for your actions is that our protests are being effective. Fortunately, your tactics were not successful and our performance went ahead as planned (although we had to improvise!). Around 200 people held a Viking funeral for BP with a pop-up longship, while museum visitors watched with interest and appreciation (or in some cases bemusement).

However, we – as some of these visitors, members and taxpayers who contribute far more money to the museum than BP does – feel we deserve some clarity.

Why did you tried to stifle our protest? Was it on direct instruction from BP, or were you acting under your own initiative? Why did you alarm visitors by telling them that the door searches were due to a ‘security threat’ rather than a piece of unsanctioned theatre? And do you condone the behaviour of the police officers who aggressively, and almost certainly unlawfully, arrested a man who had broken no laws?

According to the Evening Standard, integrity is more important to you than sponsorship. We therefore look forward to hearing your explanation.

Yours sincerely,

BP or not BP?
bp-or-not-bp.org

* Security staff watched as two police officers shoved the man against a wall, handcuffed him, and led him away, but your staff did not speak up or intervene. We have footage of the incident and multiple witnesses, and the man (known as Thor) did nothing other than try to politely convince a security guard to let him into the building. He was released without charge less than two hours later, and is considering taking legal action against the police for wrongful arrest.

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