By: Ana Villegas
While analyzing the transformation of Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits into a museum, American professor of Environmental Studies Dr. Stephanie LeMenager states that “Fossils and fuel are distinct forms of commodity whose value relies, in both cases, upon the occlusion of specific historical relationships—social and ecological histories— that confer value. The fossil is the unique object separated by museum display from other cultural meanings, while fuel offers an abstraction of matter, a dream of disembodied energy” (LeMenager, 316). LeMenager claims that museums, intentionally or unintentionally, do not display important socio-cultural information prudent for visitors’ comprehension, resulting in a fragmented or incomplete understanding of the relationship between fossil fuels, energy and humanity. However, climate activists are fighting back against this fragmentation, using acts of civil disobedience to force cultural institutions to address how museums and climate change are intimately interconnected.
Figure 1. BP or Not BP Protest at the British Museum held on April 23, 2022. Courtesy of @fieldsoflightphotography. Posted on April 26.
This summer, museums and art galleries throughout the United Kingdom experienced an irregular number of demonstrations that protested the sponsorships of oil companies in cultural institutions. Extinction Rebellion staged a "die-in" at London’s Museum of Natural History underneath the large blue whale skeleton. BP or Not BP, occupied the British Museum four separate times in April alone. Demonstrators from several climate action groups, have glued their hands to the wooden frames or glass cases of famous paintings, while other members hand out pamphlets. These protests are at the wake of several scandals and broken promises from the British government.
The Climate Change Committee released a report which warns that the government may not reach their goal of net zero gas emissions by 2050, reporting “major policy failures” and “scant evidence of delivery.” Also, the British government plans on building a road that goes underneath the archeological site of Stonehenge.
Figure 2. The BP Must Fall campaign by BP or Not BP. The Trojan horse is a metaphor of BP's sponsorship as death disguised as a gift. Courtesy of @xr_newham. Posted on February 9, 2020.
However, the most pressing issue is the British Museum’s plans to continue the BP's sponsorship. The oil company has been the subject of severe backlash over lack of meaningful action. For instance, ClimateAction100+ reported that the company has not met any of the criteria from the Paris Agreement. BP is also planning to spend a whopping £23 billion on new oil and gas fields in the next couple of decades. Culture Unsustained has released documents via the Freedom of Information Act which reveals that British Museum's Director, Hartwig Fischer, plans on continuing the relationship between the museum and BP. Three hundred archeologists and others have signed an open letter that urges the Museum to end this relationship.
This was the response from the British Museum:
"The British Museum receives funding from BP, a long-standing corporate partner, to support the museum’s mission and provide public benefit for a global audience through their support of our temporary exhibition programme. Without external support, much programming and other major projects would not happen...The support they provide helps realise the vision and hard work of curatorial staff and enables our programming to be made available to the widest possible audience."
Both the mainstream media and museum officials have made subtle attempts to demonize the activists’ actions. Officials and authorities have made statements that paint the climate activists as anti-culture, sensationalist, or inconsiderate. After the demonstration with Primavera, the Uffizi gallery stated that, “If there had not been the special protections glasses for the main masterpieces of the museum, today we would have had a real damage to the work, as happened recently in other museums on the occasion of similar protests.” I have tried to find out other instances in which paintings have been "ruined" by climate change activists, and I have found none in recent times. After several of these demonstrations, the National Police Coordination Centre has observed that it is “highly likely to continue targeting high-value artworks in order to generate further international news coverage for their campaign messaging.”
In reality, most of the demonstrators are harmless for both visitors and collections. First, they do not intend to damage any art or collections. So far no artwork has undergone any damage from these demonstrations. Usually the protestors glue their hands on the wooden modern frame, or the glass case. Once the protestors have their hands removed, the in-house conservators fix the damage from the glue, and the painting is up on display normally within the week. Second, the protestors’ target is their governments, not the art. When questioned, the demonstrators have all stated that they are highlighting recent government policies and actions concerning the environment. University student, Hannah Hunt, while protesting at the National Gallery, said that “she was fighting government plans to licence 40 new oil and gas projects.” Eben Lazarus stated that “I want to work in the arts, not disrupt them, but the situation we’re in, means we must do everything non-violently possible to prevent the total collapse of our ordered society.”
The protestors’ are not sensationalist, nor do they mean to ruin people’s day. Their motivation is to alert visitors of the discrepancies between the museums’ intentions, their values, and how they operate. The statement by Culture Unsustained outlines “how the potential harm of signing a new sponsorship agreement with BP demonstrably outweighs the benefits and would be inconsistent with the museum’s commitments on sustainability.”
They choose paintings based on their notoriety and content. The most important criterion is not the value of the painting; that is just for shock value to grab the media’s attention. It is the artwork itself, what it portrays, that is the determining factor. So far, the activists have chosen paintings that portray nature untouched by man, pollution, or unchecked industrialization— usually landscapes. Each artwork was chosen to parallel and emphasize the demonstrators’ messages. For instance, Peach Trees in Blossom shows the Provence region which has been recently predicted to experience extreme weather in the coming months. Hay Wain was covered by a reimagined version showing the beautiful landscape polluted and destroyed. Regarding the McCulloch painting, the climate activist, Lean stated, “This landscape was painted in 1860 at the height of the highland clearances, when whole crofting [small scale farming] communities were evicted by a new class of landlords ruthlessly pursuing their own private interests...It was only when crofters organized and resisted that they won rights.”
Figure 5. Protestors with their hands glued to the Hay Wain at the National Gallery. Courtesy of @tombowlesphoto. Posted on July 4, 2022.
These are the paintings so far included in the glued-hands protests:
Peach Trees in Blossom (1889) by van Gogh
Thomson’s Aeolian Harp (1809) by J. M. W. Turner
Hay Wain (1821) by John Constable
The Last Supper (ca. 1520) by Giampietrino
My Heart’s in the Highlands (1860) by Horatio McCulloch
So, why museums, why art? The museum sector is experiencing a shift in their relationship with the public, especially concerning social justice issues. it seems that climate activists are demonstrating “doomsday ecological thinking" (LeMenager, 317) within the museum. An activist, Goldi, exclaimed, “How can they pretend to care about the preservation and protection of the Stonehenge landscape, while simultaneously allowing fossil fuels within their walls?” In a similar statement, Simon Bramwell, cofounder of Extinction Rebellion said to ARTnews, “There are people wandering around these art galleries finding beauty inherent in art that depicts nature, and yet are unable to comprehend the beauty that is disappearing with our ancient forests, or the hundreds of species that are going extinct each day.” He went on to say that "lukewarm exhibitions" are not enough anymore.
For so long, museums relied on the sector's professionals to outline and determine criteria, including ethical guidelines. However, now the public, in which the institution claims to represent, is demanding their own voice and agency in museum practices. Serafini and Garrad highlight this new dynamic: "This issue calls attention to the fact that there are two intertwined layers of museum practice that should be subject to a code of ethics: internal processes and external ones (namely, interactions with source communities and stakeholders). To maintain an ethical practice, there needs to be ‘alignment’ between these processes" (Serafini & Garrad, 76).
Figure 6. A picture of the BP Must Fall campaign from BP or Not BP. Courtesy of Peter Brooks @ptrbrks. Posted on February 14, 2020.
Save Stonehenge - Stonehenge Heritage Action Group