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?

* 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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  1. #1 Chris Lemin 20 Jun 14

    It does seem a little over the top to arrest someone for possessing a cardboard shield.

    There have been a number of these performances in the past and they have always been peaceful, brief and enjoyable to watch. There has never been any accusation of damage to exhibits or distress to members of the public in fact, they may even have enhanced their visit.

    If BP are getting embarrassed by all this attention, perhaps they should take their dirty money elsewhere. Better still they should stop polluting, destroying, human rights abuses etc. etc. Then they can have all the exhibitions they like named after them. I would pay to see that!

  2. #2 Dr David Dewhurst 20 Jun 14

    Love our British Museum but pained at best by their not only colluding with a greenwasher in a naive complot facade of CSR but facilitating suppression of dissent and an arrest which was at best illegal and at worst immoral.

  3. #3 Ruthi Brandt 20 Jun 14

    As someone who has participated in this, and some of the previous, pop-up theatre pieces, I was rather forgiving to the museum for wanting to make sure that their collections are not in any danger. After all, they don't know us, they can't know that we respect history and human culture. That was at least true for the first flash-mob action, though you'd think that by now they can be a bit more trusting that the people involved have no intention of causing any damage.

    However, these recent actions by the museum - preventing entry to known people (those people who have been there before and hasn't caused any damage, other than reputational one) despite the fact that they haven't carried anything dangerous; or stopping a another person because he carried a cardboard shield (to be fair, the shield was in BP colours - which makes it a rather menacing thing I suppose!) - these actions show that the museum is not worried about damage to precious artefact, but rather about the damage to its reputation.

    No cool British Museum, not cool...

  4. #4 Christopher Keene 20 Jun 14

    This is utterly unacceptable behaviour on your part

  5. #5 dannychivers 20 Jun 14

    I was one of the four people who was barred from this protest, because the security guards recognised us from previous events. We were given no reason as to why we couldn't enter, we were just told to leave. We explained that, in fact, the four of us had roles to play in the performance and that everything would run more smoothly and quickly if they let us in, which would actually make their lives easier. They were having none of it, and told us to leave without explaining why.

    Our protest performances have never caused any damage or harm to anyone other than the reputation and brand of BP. The Museum staff didn't even pretend that they thought we were going to create any risk to anyone or anything, they just told us we weren't coming in. The only explanation is that they wanted our protest to be less effective, in order to protect their sponsor.

    I hope that the Museum's management at least have the courage to come out and admit this, in reply to this letter.

  6. #6 Melanie Strickland 21 Jun 14

    As members of public who visit and fund the musuem through taxes, we have a legitimate interest in asking whether BP instructed (or encouraged) the British Museum to act in such an extraordinary way that day. The British Musuem is a public institution that should be accountable to us, not its planet-destroying corporate sponsor.

    It was a shocking waste of public money to have so many police on hand, when no crime could or would have taken place. The arrest of a man holding a cardboard shield and standing in a queue was clearly unlawful, and quite distressing for those who witnessed it or heard about it.

    The performance inside was enjoyed by visitors, children and the actors. The British Musuem should focus its attention on why BP is being targeted - this is because it is a company whose business model relies on extracting fossil fuels from the land and selling it at huge profit. BP profits from a activity that is causing dangerous climate change - BP's sponsorship of the British Museum allows it to 'launder' its reputation somewhat - BP sponsors our past to distract from the fact that it's destroying our future.

  7. #7 Biff Vernon 21 Jun 14

    There is little point in conserving the past if the future is wrecked. The British Museum's responsibility extends in both directions of time.

  8. #8 Shaun 21 Jun 14

    Personally I found it most frustrating that the Museum felt the need to inconvenience its visitors by closing the rear entrance and forcing extensive security checks on us all at the front. Experience of the group in question clearly showed that this was entirely unnecessary, and for them to blame the performers was simply bad faith.

    Of course inconveniencing everyone by tacitly supporting the destruction of our future is the bigger problem, but making it harder for people to access the Museum's own resources seems another course of action that is hard to explain (in fact, one that I would like them to explain).

  9. #9 Thomas 22 Jun 14

    Yesterday they were protesting also at the British Museum. Quite annoying as they were basically sitting in the way and disrupting the pleasure of the visitors to enjoy the museum in full capacity.

  10. #10 Melanie Strickland 22 Jun 14

    Just saw photos of yesterday's alternative portrait awards - what a powerful piece. Didn't look to me like anyone was in the way at all, and I hear the piece was well recieved. Well done everyone involved, you should be proud that you're putting your considerable talents to such good use!

  11. #11 Paolo Ferrario 11 Jul 14

    weldone! I wish I had been there! Next time I hope!

  12. #12 Constance Konold 05 Nov 16

    I love the British Museum and have visited multiple times over the past ten years. However, I was shocked earlier this year to find security check lines and the back entrance closed. I was selected for a security check because of my medium-sized handbag at the same time the guards let through, unchecked, a fully veiled niqab-ed woman. Stung by what I felt was an injustice, I tried to point this out to my guard. He looked confused and mumbled something in barely understandable English.

    It is clear that the British Museum and other public institutions have to do a better job recruiting and training (and no doubt paying) the security interface with the public to avoid empowering the unfortunate ignorant who ’guard’ us as well as the financial sponsors who are polluting our world and ruining our climate.

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