“Like smoke blown to heaven on the wings of the wind, our country, our conquered country, perishes. Its palaces are overrun by the fierce flames and the murderous spear.”

These words, from The Trojan Women, found a new home in the British Museum’s exhibition on Troy. Translated from Greek into Arabic and produced by a cast of Syrian refugees, the tale was retold as Queens of Syria. Pushed to the brink by their circumstances, these women are forced to rebuild their lives and repossess the narrative. The exhibition aimed to highlight the brutality of Trojan War, and its legacy in popular culture. Queens of Syria seemed perfect. The British Museum tried to use it to draw focus to the horrors of war. Instead, that focus was firmly placed on them. The director of the piece, Zoe Lafferty, published an open letter condemning the exhibition’s sponsor before it even opened. The British Museum was once again under fire for their infamous partnership with British Petroleum.

            British Petroleum (BP) is a multi-billion-dollar company specialising in the extraction and refinement of oil and natural gas. Founded in 1908 as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the company rapidly expanded from its base in Persia, subsuming smaller oil companies that previously held monopolies in former Ottoman polities with the help of the British government. In 1935 Persia became Iran, and Anglo-Persian became Anglo-Iranian. The name changed, but their stranglehold over the nation’s oil continued. By the end of the Second World War the company’s growth rate completely outstripped Iran’s.  Nationalist sentiment was blossoming throughout the Middle East, and Iranian nationalism soon took hold in the form of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

            Mossadegh was appointed as Prime Minister by the Shah in 1951. While Iran hadn’t been formally colonised, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) held complete control over the oil-based economy, and was Iranian in name only. Mossadegh considered it an unwelcome symbol of Britain’s iron grip over Iran’s economy; one of his first actions in office was its nationalisation. Britain’s revenge was swift, forcing other oil companies to implement an oil embargo on Iran and lodging complaints with both the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the Security Council. The ICJ found it had no jurisdiction over the case, and the Security Council refused to act. Regardless, the UK’s actions on BP’s behalf plunged Iran into a recession that soon manifested in political unrest. With a helping hand from the CIA’s ‘Operation Ajax’ and MI6’s ‘Operation Boot’, Mossadegh fell from power in 1953 in a coup d’état. AIOC was now firmly entrenched in Iran, owning 40% of shares in the coalition of foreign oil companies that now controlled Iran’s refineries.

            So, why the history lesson? For the answer, check the BP website. Their own rundown of BP’s illustrious history tells the same story in very different terms. It describes the process of “evacuating staff and their families” in 1951, presenting BP as an innocent victim of Iran’s nationalisation. “Mobs in the street demanded the Prime Minister’s resignation”, it claims, ignoring that these ‘mobs’ were actually CIA thugs. It proudly notes that “the Iranian economy was in ruins”, suggesting that this ‘organic’ loss of revenue was at the root of their decision to “accept a new partnership proposal.” This revisionism is essentially propaganda that aims to make the company’s history more palatable to potential share-holders and investors. The website, however, is only the tip of the iceberg of a PR strategy that has seen BP sponsor some of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the United Kingdom.

            “BP,” says its website, “believes that access to arts and culture helps to build a more inspired and creative society.” As such, they have been building links with cultural institutions across the UK for the past 50 years. In 2016 this long-term “strategy” manifested in a five-year investment of £7.5 million shared between the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The latter severed its ties to BP in 2019. The British Museum runs an annual ‘BP exhibition’, with recent titles including I am Ashurbanipal and Indigenous Australia. This money ostensibly allows exhibitions that might not be able to attract funding to go ahead, enabling the British public to engage with art and culture. BP uses this sponsorship to paint a picture of an engaged, socially-responsible company with a corporate strategy that extends beyond profit into cultural development. However, as their beneficiaries would undoubtedly remind them, art is subjective. Not everyone agrees with BP’s self-portrait.

            This artistic disagreement has manifested in real-life protests. The 13-foot Trojan Horse that creaked into the courtyard of the British Museum on the 9th February was a reminder to the institution of the danger of trusting gifts. An icon of deception, many activists consider it a more accurate portrayal of BP’s patronage.  The statue served as the figurehead of a 3-day “BP Must Fall” protest that saw 1600 activists occupy the British Museum, which is no stranger to protests. This one, the latest planned by activists from ‘BP or not BP’, was far bigger than previous actions.  

            Formed in response to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) partnership with BP in 2012, ‘BP or not BP’ is a protest organisation that aims to sever ties between British cultural organisations and oil companies. It has been responsible for 59 actions, including a ‘stolen goods tour’ of the British Museum led by Aboriginal activist Rodney Kelly and a ‘living statue’ protest at a private function for BP members. The February protest saw lectures on decolonisation, an “unsanctioned art exhibition” called Momentum, and an occupation of the museum’s courtyard. All this took place in the shadow of the Trojan Horse, which contained activists who slept in its body to prevent it from being removed during the night.

This kind of action has worked in the past. The RSC terminated its contract with BP two years early, largely as a result of the group’s actions. The Science Museum cut ties with Shell in 2015; Tate Modern did the same to BP in 2017. Protesters from ‘Liberate Tate’ also forced the gallery to reveal that BP’s funding provided less than 0.5% of their annual income, undermining the argument that BP’s money was somehow ‘necessary’ for the continuation of these artistic projects. BP’s website claims that it has “enabled over 4.2 million visitors to attend a festival, an exhibition, display or activity” at the British Museum since 1996. While this may sound like an impressive contribution, it is a drop in the ocean for an institution that receives an average of 6.3 million visitors per year. The 2016 BP sponsorship deal only accounts for around 0.3% of the British Museum’s annual income. Activists see this as an unfair exchange: BP gets to boost its public image in exchange for almost negligible contributions to these institutions.

           They call this ‘artwashing’: a process in which companies and governments sponsor artistic and cultural endeavours in order to create a veneer of social engagement that deflects and distracts from criticism. It is one of the buzzwords of international protest against corporate sponsorship and gentrification from Los Angeles to London, but it is not their only issue. There is also a concern that companies like BP might seek to influence exhibitions with the same end goal in mind. Shell attempted this at the Science Museum in 2015, trying to put pressure on the Museum to avoid a discussion that would show Shell in a negative light. In this specific avenue, however, concerns about BP have proved unfounded. This ‘artwashing’ is simply another arm of BP’s overarching aim: public exoneration.

            The size of protests against BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum has grown at great cost to the institution. Ahdaf Soueif resigned from the Board of Trustees in July 2019, citing BP’s sponsorship as a key motive. Her explanation, published by the London Review of Books, perfectly summarises what activists long suspected: “The public relations value that the museum gives to BP is unique, but the sum of money BP gives the museum is not unattainable elsewhere.” Even artists whose work has been used as part of exhibition have criticised the museum. Zoe Lafferty’s open letter questions why the British Museum “inexplicably” continues its partnership with BP, emphasising the “impossible position” her team was in, having already agreed to allow the use of her work.

            Two months after the February protests I spoke to Sal. H, a member of ‘BP or not BP’. BP continues to sponsor the British museum.  Asked whether she thought their protest had been successful, she responded with a question: “what would success look like for us as an organisation? You could say it was divestment. You could say it was the return of all the stolen goods. What would those gains mean? My personal angle on it is that the British Museum and its sponsorship exists as a perfect way for us to illustrate and point out the long legacy of colonialism and the continued oppression of people who have suffered colonialism.” Their protests are opportunities to platform activists from around the world. ‘BP Must Fall’ saw people from Kurdistan, West Papua, and Mexico give talks on the colonial history of the British Museum and the impact of BPs actions on indigenous populations across the globe. Divestment is not the only goal: raising awareness and sparking discussion in the media are also critical. The end result of all this is consistent, negative press for the British Museum. The question at the heart of the debate seems simple: if being sponsored by BP means huge protests and high-profile resignations for a minimal return, why not just drop them?

            Soueif frames the partnership’s continuation as an attempt not to “alienate a section of the business community.” In Sal’s opinion, however, it runs deeper than a simple monetary relationship: it reflects the British Museum’s own status as an icon of colonialism and exploitation. The board of directors are “very happy to invite BP to private views and functions”, implying the existence of a political link that would explain the relationship. Each person suggests a different motive and without conjecture it’s impossible to give a coherent argument for the British museum to continue the partnership. Despite this, the relationship continues.

            The entrenched nature of BP’s sponsorship has forced ‘BP or not BP’ to get creative. The group’s main concern is that BP is misrepresenting themselves through their sponsorship. Although the easiest way to stop that misrepresentation is to terminate the partnership, if the group can engage the public’s imagination then BP fails anyway. The longer the British Museum retains BP as a partner, the larger the protests will get. Every protest is another opportunity for activists to grab the attention of the media and undermine BP’s narrative, preventing BP from achieving its goal anyway.

            While ‘BP or not BP’ has enjoyed successful protests, they are still a long way from this level of public engagement. In addition to this, protest has just become a lot more difficult. The 20th April marked the 10-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 rig workers. This would usually be marked by a huge protest, but ‘BP or not BP?’ was forced to commemorate the tragedy with an online protest. Around 100 activists took part in their video protest, with “thousands… posting to mark the day.” Their protest coincided with the moment oil values went negative in the USA for the first time in history in a huge blow for the oil industry. Some activists, however, see this as a nightmare scenario: cheaper fuel is far more attractive than expensive, green alternatives. The pandemic has also created more fundamental issues for the group, whose future online actions are “up in the air” as they grapple with the key question: can you justify campaigning against sponsorship deals while cultural institutions haemorrhage money?

            Covid-19 may have disarmed activist groups, but there is still hope for ‘BP or not BP’. Global demand for oil is plunging by millions of barrels a day due to the pandemic and BP’s contract with the British Museum expires next year. Whether the British Museum continues that partnership is a separate matter. “We’ll see,” Sal concedes, “it would look very bad if they renewed it.” BP has also committed to becoming a net-zero emissions company by 2050. Perhaps they mean it. Or perhaps this is another Trojan Horse. When I asked if she was cynical about BP’s promises, there was a hint of humour in her response. “Towards a profit-making organisation at the mercy of their stakeholders?” She grins. “Definitely.”

Artwork by Isabelle Lill