Archive | April 2014

Viking Power Politics at the British Museum

Last week I blogged about the Power Politics Exhibition currently on display in the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen, highlighting how the show, both thematically and aesthetically, offers a critical encounter with the overwhelmingly corporate look an direction of the museum’s permanent exhibition on the history of oil and gas in the North Sea. This week, the national news is  running with the story of a rather more high profile engagement with questions of corporate sponsorship of museums – the intervention in the British Museum staged by the activist theatre group, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company. Like the Power Politics show, the guerilla performance that took place in the British Museum on Sunday drew upon elements of the exhibition that it sought to critique. Clad as Vikings stained in oil and replete with BP logos, the actors pressed Norse mythology into service to perform a sketch about corporate sponsorship. This performance was heralded by a flash-mob choir that sang to the tune of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries a song that included mention of oil spills.

This combination of theatre and song reminds me of the ‘Petroleum Song (Mussels of Margate)’ written by Kurt Weill and Felix Gasbarra for Leo Lania’s 1928 play, Konjunktur (‘Oil Boom’). The play, which premiered in Berlin in 1928, directed by Erwin Piscator, tells the tale of three oil companies which fight over the rights to oil production in a Balkan country, exploiting the people and destroying the environment. Raping and pillaging, one might say.

For those not lucky enough to witness the live event, Reclaim Our Bard have also issued a spoof trailer, modelled on the British Museum’s own exhibition trailer, which challenges BP’s sponsorship of the museum.

BP Vikings – Pillaging the planet from rikki on Vimeo.

Amongst the most coherent critical voices on oil companies’ use of cultural sponsorship as part of their ongoing efforts to secure their ‘social license to operate’ is the London-based pressure group, Platform. Yesterday, coinciding with Reclaim Our Bard’s performance, the group released an infographic showing how little money oil sponsorship brings to flagship cultural institutions compared to their overall operating budgets.  This should be considered alongside Platform’s thoughtful guide on the ethics of business sponsorship in the arts, ‘Take the Money and Run?’.


Wilhelm Ostwald: Sociology, Energy and Culture


Wilhelm Ostwald, ‘Haus Energie’

In 2012, I spent a couple of weeks at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, working through the papers of Wilhelm Ostwald (1853 – 1932) in an effort to understand the context for his interest in sociology, the nature of his relationships with contemporary sociologists, his role in the development of the German Sociological Association, and to assess the potential of his work on energy relations for a contemporary sociology of energy. Ostwald, a singular and influential thinker, whose work is celebrated by the Wilhelm Ostwald Gesellschaft, housed in his former country residence  (the so-called ‘Energy Villa’, in Großbothen), proved to be a rewarding subject. His work sheds light, in particular, on the way in which certain contemporary sociologists – Rudolf Goldscheid and Ferdinand Tönnies foremost amongst them – grappled with the question of how sociology should respond to debates about the nature of energy.

The results of my deliberations, including a new translation of Ostwald’s ‘Sociological Energetics’, have now been published in Cultural Sociology.


Sociology has largely ignored the contribution of the German Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Wilhelm Ostwald to the sociology of energy, mainly due to Max Weber’s (1909) dismissive reception of Ostwald’s ‘energetical thought’. This article reclaims Ostwald’s significance for contemporary sociology, through a translation and exposition of ‘Sociological Energetics’, first published in 1908 as the final chapter of a popular book on energy. Ostwald’s deliberations, which derive from his engagement in contemporary debates on thermodynamics and energetics, brought him into contact with classical sociologists, including Rudolf Goldscheid, Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tönnies and Weber. Ostwald’s contribution to sociology lies in his focus on the cultural significance of energy relations and transformations. In their encounters with Ostwald and energetics, Simmel, Tönnies and Weber all reveal the potential importance of Ostwald’s work on energy relations in thinking productively about the relationship between technology and culture.

Power Politics

power politicsAberdeen’s Maritime Museum is currently showing a series of works created as part of the Power Politics project. Supported by the Living Earth Foundation, this project set out to work with school pupils in Aberdeen City and Shire and Port Harcourt, looking at questions relating to oil, energy and development in two areas where the dominant industry is oil and gas. The Maritime Museum includes a recently reworked permanent exhibition on North Sea Oil and Gas, which is organised around an imposing scale model of an oil platform and draws heavily on materials provided by a range of industrial partners. Utilizing many of the standard photographic images found in advertising materials, the exhibition’s aesthetic is highly reminiscent of corporate publications.

The Power Politics show, located in a small gallery accessed via the central Oil and Gas display, stands in direct contrast to the permanent exhibition. Two video screens show documentary films discussing aspects of everyday life in Scotland and Nigeria, while a set of wall panels contain a number of large-scale comic strips taking up questions relating to the politics of oil and encouraging a critical encounter with the way in which the story of oil is narrated. The critique of representation offered extends to the Maritime Museum itself, noting the inclusion of a 3-D cinema in the museum’s Oil and Gas display. The cinema shows a documentary film created and donated by TAQA, the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, which operates in the North Sea as a fully integrated exploration and production company. The film is entirely in keeping with the corporate aesthetic of museum’s permanent exhibition. The achievement of the Power Politics show is to place in question the authority of the story of oil and gas told in the museum. It effectively suggests the power of substituting the idea of telling the story of the North Sea with the imperative to tell multiple stories and insists that those stories must attend both to the local and to the global.

The project includes a set of learning resources and nine short films made by school pupils in Aberdeen and Port Harcourt. All the resources are available via the Power Politics website.