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.
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?’.