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Mighty Thor - arrested by police on the say-so of a British Museum security guard, later released without charge. Photo: BP or not BP?

Mighty Thor was arrested by police on the say-so of a British Museum security guard - for his fake beard and cardboard shield? He was later released without charge. Photo: BP or not BP?

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British Museum - is BP driving your heavy-handed approach?

Danny Chivers

17th September 2014

Amid ongoing creative protests over BP's sponsorship of the British Museum, Danny Chivers wants to know - why the harsh security tactics? Why the searches, exclusions and arrests, all for a paltry 1% or less of the Museum's funding? Is this their policy, or is it BP that's calling the shots?

It's absurd to suggest that the British Museum - with all its resources, networks and public profile - cannot fund its exhibitions without involving the fossil fuel industry.

If you visited the British Museum on 15th June this year, you'd have seen quite an unusual sight. At 3.30pm two hundred people, many dressed as Vikings, gathered in the Museum's huge domed inner court.

They started chanting about how the oil company BP - sponsors of the Museum's popular Vikings Exhibition - was acting to bring about Ragnarok, the Viking end of the world, thanks to its enormous contribution to climate change.

Seemingly from nowhere, a pop-up longboat (see photo, right) emerged from the crowd, covered in subverted BP logos. The horde of performers then paraded this boat around the Museum, singing mournfully, before "sinking" the ship in order to give BP an unexpectedly moving Viking funeral.

Participants spoke passionately about their disgust that the Museum, through its ongoing sponsorship deal with BP, was allowing itself to be used as a cheap PR tool by such a destructive company.

This Viking-themed 'flash-horde' - organised by the performance activist group 'BP or not BP?' - came off successfully and attracted a lot of attention. But despite being a piece of clearly peaceful theatrical protest, it was met with an unprecedented crackdown from British Museum security.

Why did you try to stifle our protest?

Every visitor to the Museum that afternoon was subject to a bag search - creating long queues out into the street - and harmless pieces of costume such as paper helmets and cardboard swords were confiscated.

Several performers (including myself) were recognised from previous performances and refused entry. One man, known as Thor, was even arrested by police after politely asking a security guard why he wasn't allowed to bring in a cardboard shield adorned with a BP logo. (see photo, above right)

We wrote an open letter to Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, challenging them on their over-the-top attempts to silence our protests. Published by New Internationalist, our letter demanded some specific answers from the Museum:

"Why did you try 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?"

Why is this 1% of British Museum funding so essential?

We didn't really expect a reply. We thought they'd just ignore us. But we were wrong. The British Museum have now replied to us, not just once but twice. The first email from David Bilson, their head of security, can be read in full below.

This email claims that they needed to ramp up their security in order to "protect the public and safeguard the museum". However this ignores the fact that we have held a number of these performance protests in the past, including another 200-strong flashmob back in 2012. None of these previous protests were met with such an excessive security response.

The Museum's email also claims that they need BP's money to run their exhibitions. However, according to oil industry watchdog Platform, BP's sponsorship makes up less than 1% of the Museum's annual income.

The Museum seem to acknowledge this by referring specifically to temporary exhibitions like the Vikings, which they claim are only possible "with the kind of external support that BP and other large commercial interests are able to offer."

Faced with the burning urgency of climate change, it's absurd to suggest that the British Museum - with all its resources, networks and public profile - cannot fund its exhibitions without involving the fossil fuel industry.

Alternatives abound, for both the short and the longer term; for example, the PCS trade union, which represents 5,000 workers in cultural institutions like the British Museum, has laid out an alternative vision for the sector based on properly-directed public funding, decent pay and fairer management structures, in which corporate sponsorship is not required.

Fake beards and cardboard shields

The Museum's second email to us is less formal, and invites us to come and take a tour of the Museum and have a chat with the head of security. We replied (see full version below):

"Firstly, why were performers prevented from entering the building, and why were their costumes and props confiscated? Museum regulations prohibit visitors from bringing in items which are ‘illegal' or carry a ‘risk' to the collection, but cardboard shields and fake beards are neither ...

"Secondly, one performer was arrested and forced into a police car, despite doing nothing more than peaceably conversing with a security guard outside. He posed no threat to either the exhibits or the general public, and he had broken no law - as evidenced by the fact that he was released without charge.

"Why did this happen, and why did the museum guards who witnessed this not intervene on his behalf? We feel that the museum is partly responsible for this miscarriage of justice, and is deliberately stifling legitimate peaceful protest; but what is your perspective on this?

"Your suggestion that there has been 'a substantial change in safety and security considerations as your numbers have grown to the level of 200 people' is simply incorrect; we held a protest with 200 people (a Shakespearean flashmob) in November 2012 (see photo, above right), and although you searched everyone coming in on that occasion you didn't confiscate any costumes, exclude anybody or let the police arrest people ...

"We can only assume that your new heavy-handed approach is at the request of BP, because the company is embarrassed by the exposure of its real deeds to the public. If there is another reason, what is it?"

We await their reply with keenest interest.

 


 

Danny Chivers is author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change and a member of the BP or not BP? performance activism group.

Join the group on the People's Climate March this Sunday September 21st - meet at 12.15pm outside the MacAdam Building, Kings College London, and look out for the pop-up Viking ship!

 

 


 

Correspondence - the first email from the British Museum

Dear BP or Not BP,

Thank you for your comments with regard to the security measures taken to protect the British Museum, the collection, staff and visitors on June 15th.

It is important to us that we are able to present leading exhibitions of objects and new research to our visitors. The British Museum is grateful to BP for their loyal and on-going support which has allowed us to bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely popular exhibitions and their associated public programmes. These have included; Hadrian, Italian Renaissance Drawings, Book of the Dead, Shakespeare: staging the world and Vikings: life and legend, as well as first-class visitor facilities such as the Museum's dedicated lecture space, the BP Lecture Theatre. Without the support of BP all of this would not have been achieved.

The British Museum believes it is more important than ever to deepen people's understanding of the world's many and varied cultures and this is something that can be achieved through the temporary exhibition format. It is only possible to develop and host temporary exhibitions with the kind of external support that BP and other large commercial interests are able to offer.

It is equally important that our visitors can get access to our galleries and exhibitions. You acknowledge that as a group you made no contact with the Museum to make us aware of your intentions or to discuss essential public safety planning. We were obliged to work with uncertain information that we could expect a flashmob crowd and an attempt to bring a longship into the Great Court. Your previous protests have been much smaller and less intrusive for other visitors, especially when there were only about 12 players in the group. There has been a substantial change in safety and security considerations as your numbers have grown to the level of 200 people. The Museum feels that to conduct such an event without considering public safety issues in a space that is already crowded might be described as irresponsible. We would ask that if you intend to conduct a protest at the Museum in the future, that you notify us in advance to discuss the matter in detail.

The priority for the Museum, in delivering its safety responsibilities in relation to events such as this, is to protect the public and safeguard the Museum and the collection. While we retain the right to ask protesters to leave the Museum, it is our policy to seek to work with organisers of protests who contact us. In this way we can try to facilitate the free expression of views in a safe and pre-planned manner whilst discharging our legal responsibility with regard to safety. When organisers work with us to share their plans, we are more able to find an accommodation that permits entry to the Museum, so that people can make their views known, that also respects the safety of other visitors, who want to enjoy the Great Court.

We understand that you have strongly held views and acknowledge the importance of those views to you. We have no wish to stop you from expressing opinion or to inhibit debate, but we have to balance that against the safety, and wishes, of visitors who want to see the Museum. We hope that you will understand and support our safety and operational requirements in a similar spirit.

With thanks for your comments and interest in the work of the British Museum.

Yours sincerely,

David Bilson

Head of Security and Visitor Services

The second email was very short and informal, and invited members of the BP or not BP? group to come on a tour of the Museum.

 

 


 

Correspondence - our reply in full

We've decided to write this as an open letter because we want this to be a public debate; we'd be very interested in thoughts and comments from Ecologist readers!

Dear David Bilson,

Thank you for your reply to our open letter published in the New Internationalist on June 20th. We would like to accept your offer of a tour, so long as the Museum Director Neil MacGregor also joins us. We would like him to share his views on the issues surrounding oil company sponsorship, as until now neither he nor anyone else at the Museum has directly addressed the points we raised in our open letter.

Aside from general questions about the willingness of those in management to protect and preserve the reputation of BP - a company that is actively driving us towards irreversible climate disaster - there are some specific points from our last letter that we are still waiting for you to answer.

Firstly, why were performers prevented from entering the building, and why were their costumes and props confiscated? Museum regulations prohibit visitors from bringing in items which are ‘illegal' or carry a ‘risk' to the collection, but cardboard shields and fake beards are neither. Again, your letter cited health and safety concerns as the reason the museum attempted to prevent our peaceful protest on June 15th, but you know from our past actions that we do not pose any such risks. There has been no harm to any people or exhibits from any of our seven interventions in the Museum, as we are careful to consider public safety when planning our performances. We also aim to be entertaining to the public rather than ‘intrusive', as you claim in your letter.

Secondly, one performer was arrested and forced into a police car, despite doing nothing more than peaceably conversing with a security guard outside. He posed no threat to either the exhibits or the general public, and he had broken no law - as evidenced by the fact that he was released without charge. Why did this happen, and why did the museum guards who witnessed this not intervene on his behalf? We feel that the museum is partly responsible for this miscarriage of justice, and is deliberately stifling legitimate peaceful protest; but what is your perspective on this?

There's a simple reason why we don't ask permission to hold our performances: in order to be effective and capture the attention of the public and the media, our interventions need to be lively, free-roaming and surprising, and we suspect that you won't give us permission for those kinds of events! Your suggestion that there has been "a substantial change in safety and security considerations as your numbers have grown to the level of 200 people" is simply incorrect; we held a protest with 200 people (a Shakespearean flashmob) in November 2012, and although you searched everyone coming in on that occasion you didn't confiscate any costumes, exclude anybody or let the police arrest people. We have not "substantially changed" our tactics since 2012, but you have nonetheless escalated your response.

We can assure you that as lovers of history and culture, we have no intention of putting the exhibits, staff or fellow museum-goers at risk. This seems to be obvious to the majority of your security staff, who have generally not prevented us exercising our right to peaceful protest. We can only assume that your new heavy-handed approach is at the request of BP, because the company is embarrassed by the exposure of its real deeds to the public. If there is another reason, what is it?

Thanks again for the kind offer of a tour. As we have mentioned, it is precisely our love of public museum space that has led us to protest against the sponsorship of our cultural institutions by oil companies such as BP, and against the willingness of those in management to protect and preserve the reputations of these dirty companies through these alliances. We hope, therefore, that the museum will respond directly to our questions, as well as allowing us a conversation with Mr. MacGregor.

Yours sincerely,

BP or not BP?

 

 

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