British Museum Trustee Resigns, Citing Oil Funding and Restitution Inaction

Ahdaf Soueif (right) and Hanan al Shaykh (left) at PalFest 2008 (via PalFest’s Flickrstream)

Ahdaf Soueif, a prominent Egyptian-British novelist and public figure, has resigned from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees, citing the museum’s endorsement of the oil giant British Petroleum (BP) and its inaction regarding the restitution of cultural artifacts as some of the reasons for her resignation.

Soueif announced her decision in a public letter she published with the London Review of Books (LRB), writing: “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 early 2016, I raised the issue of BP’s very high profile sponsorship of public exhibitions with the museum’s board, the chair of trustees and the director,” Soueif continued. “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.”

At a press conference last week, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer announced unequivocally that his institution will continue endorsing BP as its sponsor. According to the Art Newspaper, Fischer said that the oil company has helped the museum “create learning opportunities,” adding, “this sort of support is vital to [the British Museum’s] mission.”  Fischer’s controversial statement came after 78 prominent artists signed onto a letter demanding that the National Portrait Gallery, another London cultural institution, end its relationship with BP, which sponsors the institution’s annual Portrait Award.

“I can only think, therefore, that the museum, which has just reaffirmed its relationship with the oil giant, does not wish to alienate a section of the business community, and that this matters more than the legitimate and pressing concerns of young people across the planet – including the schoolchildren who are a target audience for the museum,” Soueif says in her letter.

Soueif is the author of the bestselling novel The Map of Love (1999), shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 and translated into 28 languages, as well as other widely known novels and essays.  She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the UK and the Lannan Foundation for Cultural Freedom in the United States, and a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Caine Prize for African Literature.

In her letter, Soueif also criticized the British Museum for failing to respond to a 2018 French report penned by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, recommending the full restitution of looted African artworks.

“The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny. And yet it hardly speaks,” Soueif wrote. “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,” she said, adding that the museum’s credibility on the issue “would depend on the museum taking a clear position as an ally of coming generations.”

“The British Museum is not a good thing in and of itself,” Soueif writes, “It is good only to the extent that its influence in the world is for the good.” In 2016, British Prime Minister David Cameron reappointed Soueif for a second term on the museum’s board of trustees. Her current term was supposed to last until June 11, 2020. In her conclusion, Soueif writes, “I was sad to resign; sad to believe that it was the most useful thing I could do.”

The British Museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

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