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Stopping Oil in our Cultural Institutions

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

By Unveilral


Just Stop Oil - National Gallery - 4th July 2022 - Copyright and courtesy of Just Stop Oil

Just Stop Oil has been making headlines recently for their actions in some of Britain's largest cultural institutions, such as London’s Royal Academy, the National Gallery and The Courtauld Gallery. Members of the group have glued themselves to multiple paintings, spraying their logo on floors and walls as well as pasting a re-imagined version of ‘The Hay Wain’, originally painted by John Constable. The re-imagined artwork replaces a quiet moment in nature with aeroplanes, oil refineries and lorries.

Interventions in art galleries are not a new phenomenon, for example, Banksy’s 2009 takeover of the Bristol Museum had the artist’s input hidden in Old Masters paintings and sculptures, much like the rendition by Just Stop Oil. However, usually they are supported by the museum or gallery hosting them. But it wouldn’t be a protest if the institutions agreed to it, would it?

A necessary part of climate protests is to demand cultural institutions recognise their influence.

This should be culturally on public opinion, and that those in senior positions are able, and should, lobby the government. Some arts institutes are taking a stand to safeguard our future, such as The Tate which have declared a climate emergency. In turn, this has influenced what they show and added legitimacy for the need to address climate change.

Just Stop Oil - Royal Academy - 5th July 2022 - Copyright and courtesy of Just Stop Oil.

It is also necessary to insist that cultural institutions divest from fossil fuel companies. It is likely that Shell decided not to renew their contract with the Southbank Centre and the British Film Institute a couple of years ago due to pressure from protestors. Divestment helps to destroy the ‘brand’ that fossil fuel companies have created through corporate sponsorship, and crucially the idea that the arts cannot be funded without it. The branding of fossil fuel companies adds respectability to them and means they can greenwash themselves through exhibitions, such as the Science Museum choosing a subsidiary of Adani, a conglomerate with holdings in coal, to sponsor their new Energy Revolution Gallery. This might sound like an oxymoron, but it is an established part of fossil fuel companies’ branding to be able to manipulate their image in the public eye.

Protest groups such as BP or not BP have been very clearly calling for the institutes who have signed contracts with BP to end their relations through creative protests. Many have listened as this year the National Portrait Gallery did not renew its contract with BP. Smaller activist groups such as This Is Not a Drill is targeting Cambridge University, which uses sponsorship from around 11 different fossil fuel companies. These include Schlumberger, a global oilfield company, and Aveva, which creates software for the fossil fuel industry. They are using these sponsorships to fund their institutes and even the Cambridge Arctic Shelf Programme. Again, we see how fossil fuel companies pour money into programs which aim to combat climate change not just to greenwash their public image, but to also prevent any plans from stopping the extraction of fossil fuels and harming their profits.

So, what does Just Stop Oil want? Both BP or not BP and This Is Not a Drill have clear demands for divestment, but Just Stop Oil do not. Their website states they want to “ensure that the government commits to ending all new licenses and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK”, but it is not clear how glueing themselves to paintings helps in achieving this. They have gone further in some statements to say they want museums and galleries to close until the government ends its relationship with fossil fuels, but this seems unrealistic and is likely to be ineffective. It is a great long-term goal, but it is wishy-washy and too far-reaching to be achievable.

Just Stop Oil - Royal Academy - 5th July 2022 - Copyright and courtesy of Just Stop Oil.

It begs the question; why are Just Stop Oil grabbing all the headlines and not the other groups? As another brainchild of Roger Hallam, who co-created Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, one of his primary tactics is to make headlines however possible, and he has the contacts to do so. Another criticism is that all his groups put pressure on activists to be ‘accountable’ and get arrested. At the Royal Academy, the protestors asked security to call the police on them. Hallam’s theory seems to be the more white, middle-class people there are arrested, the more pressure it puts on the government. This is clearly untrue by the fact that even his most successful groups such as Extinction Rebellion have had no impact on our government's use of fossil fuels and climate targets, yet instead, they are helping to fill the mega-prisons our government is so proud of building.

Another argument as to why smaller groups against oil do not garner media attention, in the same way, would be that BP or not BP have been successful, and the government does not want to promote this. This Is Not a Drill is far more radical by causing criminal damage and evading arrest, which makes the police look weak and by proxy, the government. There are few other places that more create ‘the establishment’ than Cambridge University, and to target them is therefore a direct attack on everything the state stands for.

In retaliation, it is easy for the Tory government to throw around hyperbolic terms like ‘eco-terrorist’ to describe Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion.

The controversy they kick up is fuel to the fire for the government to quash protest and have public opinion back it, unlike other groups that garner more sympathy.

Ultimately, we must call out cultural institutions and recognise the power they have to stop fossil fuels, but I believe there are better ways to do this than Just Stop Oil’s approach.



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