Deep water

Geraldine Kendall, 24.05.2016
A spectacular exhibition tainted by oil
Last week I went to a preview of the British Museum’s (BM) summer blockbuster, Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (18 May-27 November).

The exhibition is a true spectacle, with an incredible backstory – two lost ancient Egyptian cities whose names had passed into myth, archaeologists catching sight of strange underwater formations while flying over the mouth of the Nile in the 1930s – it’s like something out of Indiana Jones.

Excavations at Thonis-Heracleion (the dual Greco-Egyptian name reflects the city’s status as a trading point between the two empires) and the neighbouring city of Canopus only began in 1996, and this is the first time the story of these forgotten worlds has been told to museum-goers.

The treasures that lay preserved beneath the waves for so long are astounding. The cities were a remarkable merging of two cultures: colossal statues of a Greek king and queen, depicted as the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, watch regally over the exhibition floor. 

In a clever touch, video clips and illuminated photographs next to some exhibits show them as they looked when first discovered on the ocean floor, peering out though the silt.

The exhibition design echoes the undersea world that the objects once called home: the space is dark, lit with otherworldly greens and blues. Ambient music plays in the main hall – its use can be controversial in exhibitions, but in this case the faraway, echoey soundscape adds to the sensation that you are exploring a submerged world.
Sadly, however, this magnificent exhibition hasn’t been attracting headlines solely for its quality. As I entered, I walked past members of the anti-oil protest group, Art Not Oil, setting up what they described as a “rebel exhibition” of objects symbolising the alleged corruption and polluting behaviour of the exhibition’s main sponsor, the oil giant BP.
A few days after my visit, a separate protest by Greenpeace saw the entire museum evacuated while activists scaled its famous entrance colonnade. With a sense of irony that whoever chose the exhibition's name failed to anticipate, they unfurled giant banners listing “sinking cities” around the world threatened by climate change and rising sea levels.
As the protests against BP’s cultural sponsorship programme build up momentum - and bad press - it’s difficult to see what’s in it for either the museum or BP itself anymore. If BP’s sponsorship is an exercise in so-called “greenwashing”, it’s hardly effective for the oil giant to have the spotlight thrown on its less-then-savoury business practices so regularly.
And as for the BM – putting aside the ethical questions around oil sponsorship - it must be coming to a point where the reputational risk outweighs any financial benefit. Art Not Oil recently published a report detailing BP’s alleged “bullying” treatment of its cultural partners and attempts to interfere with curatorial decision-making; whatever the truth of those claims (which have been strongly refuted), there’s no doubt that the museums named in the report are hurt more than BP by it.
As the effects of climate change worsen, any association with oil companies - which have in some cases fought to suppress and deny links between fossil fuels and global warming - may eventually become akin to taking money from Big Tobacco. Are there really no more reputable sponsors out there who could provide the same support?

As I walked through Sunken Cities, the atmospheric undersea surroundings brought to mind a different association: BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, the worst marine oil spill in history - caused in part by the corporation’s strategy to drill for oil in ever more extreme, deep sea environments.

It’s a shame I left the BM thinking about that, and not the 20 years of painstaking excavation and research that had gone into the exhibition itself.