BY Frieze News Desk in News | 16 JUL 19

British Museum Trustee Resigns Over BP Sponsorship, Restitution Silence and Employment Precarity

‘I was sad to resign; sad to believe that it was the most useful thing I could do,’ wrote Ahdaf Soueif

BY Frieze News Desk in News | 16 JUL 19

British Museum. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and political and cultural commentator, has resigned from her position on the British Museum’s Board of Trustees over concerns with the institution’s links with oil giant BP, its alleged failure to address calls for restitution of cultural artefacts and the ‘economic precarity’ of its employment policies.

Soueif announced her resignation in an open letter published by the London Review of Books blog: ‘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.’

In 2016 Soueif raised her concerns with BP’s high-profile sponsorship of exhibitions at the museum: ‘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 continued: ‘The public relations value that the museum gives to BP is unique, but the sum of money BP gives the museum is not unattainable elsewhere.’

Last week, Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, announced that the institution will continue its relationship with BP. ‘This sort of support is vital to [the Museum’s] mission’, he said.

Writing in frieze last week, Mel Evans argued that cultural institutions must sever ties with fossil fuels: ‘Oil sponsorship must be a priority campaign target, especially given the upcoming end, or renewal, of the BP deal. For as long as the oil companies benefit from the shiny glow of the country’s most-loved cultural institutions, they will continue to maintain their outdated business model and refuse to do the right thing by the climate.’

Soueif also raised her concern over the museum’s failure to respond to a report published in 2018 by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, which recommended the full restitution of looted artefacts. ‘The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny. And yet it hardly speaks,’ Soueif said.

In the resignation letter, Soueif also cites the museum’s employment policies, which she says pushed workers into ‘economic precarity’. Referencing the Carillion bankruptcy crisis in 2018, Soueif said: ‘Of the 138 museum staff who had been handed over to Carillion five years earlier, 60 remained. They kept coming in and doing the cleaning while being paid by the receiver. Some had worked for the museum for twenty years. Now they wanted to be rehired direct. The South Bank Centre and the Historic Royal Palaces rehired people. The museum would not even enter into discussions with the workers. A conversation I tried to start about this was shut down.’

In a statement issued to frieze, Richard Lambert, Chair of the British Museum Trustees 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.’