Trustee resigns from British Museum over its stance on sponsorship and repatriation
Geraldine Kendall Adams, 16.07.2019
Ahdaf Soueif calls on museum to take a ‘clear ethical position’ on critical issues
The British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif has resigned from the British Museum’s board of trustees in protest at the institution’s position on issues such as sponsorship, outsourcing and repatriation.
In a blog explaining her decision, Soueif wrote: “My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.”
She continued: “The world is caught up in battles over climate change, vicious and widening inequality, the residual heritage of colonialism, questions of democracy, citizenship and human rights. On all these issues the museum needs to take a clear ethical position.”
Among the issues that led to her resignation, Soueif cited the oil giant BP’s sponsorship of the museum’s public exhibitions, which she said she had voiced concern about to fellow trustees and the instition’s director.
“It was an education for me how little it seems to trouble anyone – even now, with environmental activists bringing ever bigger and more creative protests into the museum,” she wrote, adding that it seemed to her that the institution “did not wish to alienate a section of the business community, and that this mattered more than the legitimate and pressing concerns of young people across the planet”.
Soueif described her dismay at the museum’s failure to rehire workers affected by the collapse of Carillion in 2018, some of whom had worked at the institution for 20 years before their jobs were outsourced to the private service company. She said a conversation she had tried to start about the issue with fellow board members was “shut down”.
Soueif also criticised the institution’s response to the debate on repatriation that has been opened up by the report commissioned by the French president Emmanuel Macron last year, which recommended proactive restitution of looted African objects.
“The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny. And yet it hardly speaks,” wrote Soueif. “It is in a unique position to lead a conversation about the relationship of south to north, about common ground and human legacies and the bonds of history. Its task should be to help us all to imagine a better world, and – along the way – to demonstrate the usefulness of museums.”
Soueif continued: “The British Museum is not a good thing in and of itself. It is good only to the extent that its influence in the world is for the good. The collection is a starting point, an opportunity, an instrument. Will the museum use it to influence the future of the planet and its peoples? Or will it continue to project the power of colonial gain and corporate indemnity?”
She concluded: “I was sad to resign; sad to believe that it was the most useful thing I could do.”
The BM’s chair of trustees, Richard Lambert, said: “The trustees regret Ahdaf Soueif’s decision to step down from the board on which she has been a much-valued voice since 2012. Ahdaf has made a significant contribution to the board in all its endeavours and discussions, and has played a crucial role in deepening the British Museum’s engagement with Egypt and the wider Middle East, and with audiences and partners throughout the world.”
Lambert defended BP’s sponsorship of the museum, saying: “BP has made it possible for us to put on exhibitions which four million people have seen.. We couldn’t have done it without that support.”
Soueif’s resignation is the latest in a series of high profile protest actions that have piled pressure on museums over sponsorship. Earlier this month, 78 artists, including five Turner Prize-winners, wrote an open letter to the National Portrait Gallery calling on it to cut ties with BP. The gallery responded in a statement: “Our commitment is to act in good faith and for the public good. Our challenge is to fulfil our remit, fund our work for the public and find positive solutions appropriate to the changing times in which we live.”
Meanwhile the street art collective Protest Stencil recently withdrew its artwork from the Science Museum’s summer blockbuster, Top Secret, in protest at the exhibition’s sponsorship by the arms dealer Raytheon. A Science Museum Group (SMG) spokeswoman said the company was an "important partner" in supporting the museum to deliver the exhibition free of charge.