BP - beware the Viking 'flash-horde' coming your way!

I'll be back ... and next time, no more Mr Nice Guy! Photo: Hugh Warwick.
I'll be back ... and next time, no more Mr Nice Guy! Photo: Hugh Warwick.

I'll be back ... on Sunday 15th June as it happens - and this time, no more Mr Nice Guy! Photo: Hugh Warwick.

Visit the British Museum's hugely successful Vikings exhibition, and you can't miss the BP branding - a fair price for their sponsorship? No way, writes Chris Garrard, who will join a 'flash-horde' at the Museum next Sunday and give BP its last rites in a Viking longship.
It is these associations with cultural institutions that give oil companies like BP a sheen of respectability and responsibility.

How many Vikings does it take to bring a longboat into the British Museum?

It may sound like the start of a joke or a riddle - but this is a very real question the Reclaim Shakespeare Company have been putting to their supporters in recent weeks.

From stage interventions in Stratford to large-scale flash mobs in London, the guerrilla theatre group have been opposing BP's sponsorship of arts and culture since 2012.

And on Sunday 15th June, the group are going to hold a 'Viking Funeral' for BP inside the British Museum's main atrium. In keeping with Viking tradition, they intend to bring a longboat.

You might think they are attempting the impossible but so far over 160 people have signed up on the group's Facebook event saying they plan to attend (and 62 maybes). With that number of Vikings at your disposal, lifting a longboat doesn't sound entirely implausible.

The opposition to BP's cultural sponsorship

Back in April, the group shone a spotlight on BP's sponsorship of the museum's new Viking exhibition by performing a Viking-themed theatre piece, complete with logo-branded Vikings and mythological gods.

It was accompanied by an 'oily' parody of the museum's own trailer for the exhibition which was circulated online and even caught the attention of the Financial Times.

The protest performance was covered on Channel 4 News by Paul Mason and followed-up by a live studio debate on oil sponsorship. If BP had been hoping to burnish their brand by attaching their logo to this exhibition, they are likely to have been sorely disappointed.

Buying a 'social licence to operate'

Often though, it is these associations with cultural institutions that give oil companies like BP a sheen of respectability and responsibility, what is referred to in the industry as their 'social license' to operate.

With the help of brand managers and these meagre contributions to the arts, BP attempts to keep the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico - and a whole host of other murky projects - out of sight.

At their recent AGM, BP also adopted an irresponsible 'business as usual' plan in the face of growing calls to take decisive action on climate change, despite the company being responsible for 2.47% of historic man-made carbon emissions.

It is these associations with cultural institutions that give oil companies like BP a sheen of respectability and responsibility.

You might argue that BP are at least generous cultural sponsors. But in fact, their contribution to the British Museum makes up less than 0.4% of its annual income. So maybe not so generous after all.

Growing support and the turning tide

Since that performance two months ago, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company have returned twice to the museum in Viking-costumed interventions, gaining support from children, families and the audience of an evening lecture.

With this support from visitors and coverage in the mainstream media, cultural sponsorship by oil companies can no longer be described as a niche issue.

As awareness grows, it's becoming increasingly difficult for institutions such as the Tate, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum to defend their decisions to take BP's money.

Some argue that cultural institutions are unlikely to take a stand and choose ethics over money but last Sunday, the Shell Out Sounds choir celebrated in song the success of their campaign to bring about the end of Shell's sponsorship of the Southbank Centre.

In 2012, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade also claimed a victory on a related issue, when the National Gallery's relationship with arms manufacturer, Finmeccanica, came to an end.

Also, the space for concerned voices from within the cultural sector to speak out has now been firmly established, with the director and playwright, Mark Ravenhill, speaking in support of the Reclaim Shakespeare Company on Channel 4 News.

A call-out to Vikings!

This week, the group's 'actor-vists' will be growing beards, shining shields and rehearsing burial rites. Through the medium of theatre, they will cast BP out of the museum and onto the eternal seas.

Amidst the inevitable comedy and spectacle of the performance, they will create more reflective moments for museum-goers to consider BP's impacts on peoples and places.

Environmental campaigners have attempted many things in the past but this may well be the first ever Viking 'flash-horde'. It will certainly be colourful, vibrant and unlike any other form of resistance you have ever seen.

And it's not too late to join them. As for how they will bring a longboat into the museum? Well, you will just have to come along and find out ...



Chris Garrard is a composer and activist, who campaigns with several groups in the Art Not Oil coalition, including the Reclaim Shakespeare Company.

Sign up for the event on Facebook.

Visit the group's website BP or not BP, and its page on the forthcoming Viking flash-horde.


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