Sherlock Holmes, the British Museum & an oily villain

On Global Divestment Day Chris Garrard says its time for cultural institutions to cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry

February 14, 2015
5 min read

It seemed like an ordinary Sunday afternoon at the British Museum. But it was to be the setting for a most grotesque affair, to stretch even the singular powers of the world’s greatest detective…

Last Sunday, the British Museum’s Great Court came to a standstill as Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and a unit of Victorian cops uncovered a crime scene. Hundreds of museum-goers gathered to watch, as the detective and his companion investigated a writhing oil spill flowing down the museum’s stairs. Holmes, equipped with trademark pipe and magnifying glass, quickly reached his conclusion…

The British Museum is harbouring the world’s biggest corporate criminal – BP!

This was the latest guerrilla performance from our theatrical activist troupe BP or not BP?. It comes at a moment when our most prestigious cultural institutions are under scrutiny for their relationship with this oil giant. Just last month, the Tate was forced to reveal that its much-vaunted BP sponsorship amounted to just 0.5% of the gallery’s income over a 17-year period. The average cost to BP of buying the Tate’s support for a year was £224,000 – about the same as a 30-second TV advert during the X-Factor final.

BP has been a corporate sponsor of the British Museum – the UK’s most popular visitor attraction – for 25 years, painting itself as a generous patron. In reality, BP makes meagre contributions to the museum, out of its budget of billions, in order to splash their logos on gallery walls and cleanse their brand image. Without the social legitimacy that cultural sponsorship buys, BP would struggle to push its risky projects like tar sands extraction and Arctic drilling. Its prestigious partnership with the British Museum also helps to distract from its role in creating unstoppable climate change.

But where does Sherlock Holmes come in? Well, in the criminal trial over Deepwater Horizon in 2012, BP admitted guilt on 14 charges of misconduct and neglect in relation to the explosion that killed 11 oil workers and caused the massive spill. BP also admitted lying to the US Congress and was forced to pay $4.5bn (£2.8bn) for its wrongdoing, the largest criminal fine in history. BP is now in court for an on-going civil case, where the company could be fined a further $13.7 billion under the US Clean Water Act, with the final outcome expected in April.

The Museum’s next BP-branded exhibition is Enduring Civilisation: Indigenous Australia. As BP pollutes indigenous communities from Canada to West Papua, and causes climate change in drought-stricken Australia, the company is plastering its logo over artefacts from the cultures harmed by its activities.

The British Museum is one of four cultural institutions – alongside the Tate, the Royal Opera House and the National Gallery – that are currently sponsored by BP as part of a 5-year block partnership. This deal is due for renewal by 2016/17, meaning that Trustees and board members will be starting to debate the issue now. If we want to get this deal dropped, 2015 will be a pivotal year to take action.

Today, on Global Divestment Day, campaigners across the world are calling for universities, religious bodies, councils and pension funds to cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry. It’s time our cultural institutions did the same – but this won’t happen unless we keep building the pressure.

Holmes successfully identified the criminal, but alas! The oily villain escaped into the museum. As the audience applauded our surprise performance, we were already preparing our next move: a mass public ‘detective flashmob’ to track down BP…

BP or not BP? invite you to join their next flashmob performance inside the British Museum on Sunday 29th March 2015 at 3pm, to help catch this dangerous criminal and stop the Museum from aiding and abetting BP’s crimes.

Email info@bp-or-not-bp.org for more details. You can also join the Facebook event and follow BP or not BP? on Twitter for updates.

BP or not BP? is part of the Art Not Oil coalition; you can sign their joint petition against BP sponsorship.