Strip away the carapace – the Ice Age, BP, and the British Museum

15 Sep 2016 james
Performance of Requiem to Sinking Cities in the Great Court, British Museum - photo Platform
Performance of Requiem to Sinking Cities in the Great Court, British Museum – photo Platform

It pushes me quickly to tears. I’m kneeling on the cold stone floor of the Great Court, legs tucked beneath me, one foot crossed under the other. I’m listening to a rendition of A Requiem to Sinking Cities – an agit-performance in the heart of the British Museum. Silent figures hold up two banners, ‘#DropBP’ and End Oil Sponsorship – BP or not BP’. Between them is a line of four musicians in black and the arms of the conductor gracefully carving through the air. Above a banner advertises the museum’s current exhibition, Sunken Cities’. It is emblazoned with the BP logo. The sound of the strings fills the cavernous space, so gentle and yet somehow drowning out the shuffling footsteps of the constant stream of the tourists flowing through the atrium.

I’m filled with the beauty of the music, and the grief of this mad, mad construct. So many of the feet that step across these stone floors must have so recently walked off 747’s in Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. The roar of the jets arriving on the tarmac in the valleys of the Thames, the Mole and the Lea is only just outside the walls of this museum. Beyond that lie the plane-filled skies over the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the dimly lit departure lounges of Tokyo, Mumbai, New York and all the rest. This space of the Great Court lies in a web of constant burning, its ‘footfall’, its economy, constructed to be dependent upon the incessant scream of thousands of aircraft engines. In the background the ceaseless carbon bombardment, in the foreground the thin notes of viola, violins and cello.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum
Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum

Earlier this morning John Sauven, Director of Greenpeace UK and Mel Evans, author of Artwash, had met with Hartwig Fischer, the new Director of the British Museum, and Sir Richard Lambert, chair of the Board, ex-Confederation of British Industry, ex-Financial Times. The pair from Greenpeace challenged Fischer to reconsider the five-year sponsorship contract with BP that the Museum is set to begin in 2018. It will grant the institution a paltry £375,000 per annum. It is less than 1% of the museum’s budget.

Why does the Director feel the need to accept this? Does he not recognise that the museum is lending its support to BP, and is helping to enhance the oil company’s reputation whilst at the same time sullying its own? Why can he not follow the example of Tate and break the 25-year sponsorship relationship with the BP? Why can he not recognise the weakness in the argument, so repeatedly peddled, that to accept oil money is uncontroversial because we all use oil?

Sir Richard Lambert, chair of the Board of the British Museum
Sir Richard Lambert, chair of the Board of the British Museum

The vast majority of Museum’s collection is comprised of objects made in the Holocene, since the glacial sheets retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Indeed perhaps three quarters of the exhibits in the British Museum are artefacts created by societies that pre-existed our ‘carbon civilisation’. Indeed the ‘Sunken Cities’ exhibition celebrates the culture of Pharaonic Egypt, a world that predates the invention of the steam engine by over two thousand years. Anybody at a senior level in an institution whose raison d’etre is to reflect upon and represent history has to recognise that we will, either with necessary haste or insane slowness, pass out of this Carbon Age. We are used to being told that the time horizons of investment managers and elected politicians are too short to be concerned with ‘macro-issues’ such as climate change. Are we really to accept that the Director of one of the world’s foremost repositories of historical learning should be short termist too? Or is Fischer too mesmerised by the timespan of his own career trajectory?

Somehow the Great Court is a great carapace, its design echoes the body of a beetle and it armours our hearts from feeling the reality that the ice is melting at the top of the world. That the Arctic is not just fading away but is being battered and smashed by the constant barrage of the carbon guns, that it is being forced into retreat by the fusillade from every jet engine that underpins the ‘visitor numbers’ of the British Museum. If only somehow we can shake off this exoskeleton, somehow know that we can live outside it and have the courage to make the steps.

Map illustrating the rapid shrinking of the area covered by Arctic sea ice over three decades
Map illustrating the rapid shrinking of the area covered by Arctic sea ice over three decades

Who – which individuals – in the development team and board at Tate had the courage to break the contract with BP? Who – which individuals – in the development teams and boards at the British Museum, the Royal Opera House, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Royal Shakespeare Company have been too cowardly, or too lacking in imagination, to take a similar step? Would this handful of men and women please step forward and own their actions.

In front of their mute invisibility we depend upon such things as the poignant strains of a string quartet to prise open our hearts and let us feel the retreat of the ice.

With thanks to Jane Trowell and Mel Evans

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