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Protesters Gatecrash Exhibition Launch Over ‘Stolen Culture’

Protesters gatecrash exhibition launch over ‘stolen culture’ and BP sponsorship

Outside the Museum. Photo by Amy Scaife.

At 10.30am this morning the official media launch of the British Museum’s new BP-sponsored exhibition, “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation”, was interrupted by an unexpected theatrical protest. A group of “actorvists” from BP or not BP?, dressed as robbers in striped T-shirts and eyemasks, temporarily blocked the exhibition entrance with a banner reading “Stolen Land, Stolen Culture, Stolen Climate”and read out quotes from Aboriginal leaders and activists, in front of a crowd of journalists waiting to get in. The protest highlighted concerns that the British legacy of taking Aboriginal land, objects and resources without permission continues today and is perpetuated by elements of the exhibition and by its sponsor, BP.

BP or not BP?, which seeks an end to oil sponsorship of culture, argues that BP is an inappropriate and insensitive choice of sponsor. The company’s massive contribution to climate change is putting the future of Indigenous communities in Australia and around the world at risk. Furthermore, on the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill, the oil giant plans to drill four new ultra-deepwater wells in Australian waters.

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Despite consultations with some aboriginal communities, the British Museum has been strongly criticised by a number of aboriginal leaders over its refusal to repatriate significant objects featured in the exhibition. A focal point of the controversy has been three rare pieces of bark art crafted by the Dja Dja Wurrung people in central Victoria that the Museum has already taken action to keep after the community tried to get them back. The museum will host a conference on “Challenging Colonial Legacies” on 2nd May.

Chris Garrard, one of the protesters, said:

This exhibition sees the British Museum refusing to return objects that rightly belong to Aboriginal communities and instead displaying them next to a BP logo – a company that has no place anywhere near the words ‘enduring civilisation’. Torres Strait islanders, whose traditions feature in the exhibition, are already being forced to adapt to rising sea levels brought about by fossil-fuelled climate change. If, when the British had first landed in Australia, they had engaged with Indigenous peoples and their knowledge of the environment rather than taking their land and possessions, we would better understand how to live sustainably today.”

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Jess Worth, another actor-vist, said:

“As a British citizen I would like to see our national museum positively commit to moving away from our shameful colonial past. This would involve giving back to Aboriginal communities the objects it has been hoarding for generations, and ending its disgraceful relationship with one of the most destructive perpetrators of fossil fuel colonialism in the modern world: BP. As a lover of history and culture I wish the British Museum could be an institution I can take pride in, but for that to happen some serious changes need to be made.”

The protest also highlights land rights, in an expression of solidarity with aboriginal communities who are still struggling for the right to live on their traditional lands since the British first invaded Australia and stole their land. Australia is currently witnessing the growth of #SOSblakaustralia, a mass protest movement challenging a decision by the regional government to forcibly close 150 “homelands” in Western Australia – remote communities where Indigenous peoples live on and look after their traditional lands.

For more information and background on all these issues, see this briefing.

This is the latest in a series of protests accusing the British Museum of helping BP to clean up its tarnished brand by continuing to allow it to sponsor the museum’s major exhibitions. A recent Freedom of Information request by BP or not BP? revealed that BP’s donations in 2000-2011 represented just 0.8% of the museum’s income. Another request uncovered a series of emails between the museum’s outgoing director, Neil MacGregor, and staff members at BP, revealing a sponsorship deal sustained by cosy relationships at the top level.

The British Museum’s own “Policy on Sustainable Development” states that the museum “is committed to sustainable development throughout all the aspects of its operation” and will “endeavour to incorporate sustainable development issues into future policy decision-making at all levels”.

BP or not BP? is a member of the Art Not Oil coalition.

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