Leading figures urge British Museum to back human rights ahead of BP-sponsored Egypt exhibition

  • Ahead of new BP-sponsored Egypt exhibition, British Museum Director is urged not to “celebrate Egypt’s cultural past while ignoring the human rights situation in the present”
  • Letter signed by 70+ signatories including leading cultural figures and climate organisations calls on Museum to back call for release of political prisoners ahead of COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh
  • “Read-in” staged outside exhibition calls for release of Egyptian-British writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah who has been on hunger strike for over 190 days.
  • Representatives of oil sponsor BP and Egyptian government expected to attend official opening of ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt tonight.

Today, ahead of the opening of its major new exhibition ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’, sponsored by the oil and gas company BP, the Museum is being urged to speak out in support of human rights in Egypt. A letter signed by leading cultural figures, climate organisations, workers’ groups and scientists, calls on the Museum to lend its voice to the international call for the release of prisoners of conscience before the COP27 Climate Summit taking place in Egypt in November. It highlights how Museum sponsor, BP, is Egypt’s largest fossil gas producer with close ties to President Sisi. This morning, supporters will also stage a “Read-in” inside the Museum’s iconic Great Court and recite from You Have Not Yet Been Defeated by Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a prominent political prisoner who has been on hunger strike since April.

The letter has been backed by over 70 signatories, including Egyptian-British actor Khalid Abdalla (The Crown), author and former British Museum trustee Ahdaf Soueif, authors Kamila Shamsie, Valeria Luiselli and Yasmin el-Rashidi, composer and musician Brian Eno, President of PCS Culture Group Gareth Spencer (which represents many museum workers), artists Ackroyd & Harvey, Professor of Heritage Studies at UCL Institute of Archaeology Rodney Harrison, and Executive Director of Oil Change International Elizabeth Bast. Besides being one of the leading cultural institutions in the UK, the British Museum is also the leader in public engagement with Egypt. The letter argues that:

“As the Museum puts Egypt in the spotlight it has both a position of influence, and the responsibility to use it. It should not celebrate Egypt’s cultural past while ignoring the human rights situation in the present, or the climate impacts Egypt faces in the future.”

The letter raises widespread concerns about the ongoing violent crackdown and restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression in Egypt which threaten the meaningful participation of civil society at COP27. Tens of thousands of government critics have been imprisoned for practising their right to freedom of expression. The letter draws attention to:

“Alaa Abd el-Fattah, an Egyptian-British writer and activist, and nephew of former [British Museum] trustee Ahdaf Soueif, who has been imprisoned for nine years. Alaa has been on hunger strike since April 2022 to demand his right to consular access by the British Embassy – which the Egyptian authorities have still not granted.”

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss when Foreign Secretary, have both raised Alaa’s case with Egyptian officials. They have both failed to secure consular visits or any improvement in his conditions. Representatives from both BP and the Egyptian government attended the official opening of the Museum’s last BP-sponsored exhibition on Egyptian archaeology. It is understood that the official opening of the Hieroglyphs exhibition will take place this evening, before opening to the public on Thursday 13th October.

Naomi Klein has written

“It’s hard not to think of the courageous youth leaders of the Arab Spring, many of them now prematurely aged by over a decade of state violence and harassment, systems that are lavishly bankrolled by military aid from Western powers.”

This morning, supporters dressed in black ‘Free Alaa’ T-shirts and holding a ‘Free Alaa’ banner will hold a “Read-in” outside the exhibition, reading aloud passages from Alaa’s book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated as members of the press attend a private preview. The passages include Alaa’s reflections on the climate crisis:

The crisis, for certain, is not a crisis of awareness, but of surrendering to the inevitability of inequality. If the only thing that unites us is the threat, then every person or group will move to defend their interests. But if we meet around a hope in a better future, a future where we put an end to all forms of inequality, this global awareness will be transformed into positive energy.  Hope here is a necessary action.

Alaa Abd el-Fattah. Photo: Mohammed Al Raai

The letter also draws attention to exhibition sponsor BP:

“By allowing the company to sponsor this exhibition, the Museum is actively assisting BP in projecting a misleading picture of its business. BP has partnered closely with successive governments and regimes in Egypt and the same laws and practices that limit the role of civil society and have condemned thousands to imprisonment have aided the expansion of BP’s fossil fuel extraction in the country.”

BP’s West Nile Delta development, which the UK government claimed as “the largest investment deal in Egypt’s history” is now extracting close to 1 billion cubic feet per day of fossil gas to onshore facilities near Rosetta (Rasheed), where the Rosetta Stone – the centrepiece of the new exhibition – was excavated. 

Signatory to the letter, writer and film-maker Omar Robert Hamilton, has said:

“Egypt relies a great deal on its ancient past to obscure its present horrors. BP, on the other hand, works hard to rewrite its past inaction in order to obscure the future horrors it has helped create. The British Museum seems happy to help launder both of their reputations. And though it’s disappointing, it’s not really surprising. It’s just the latest example of the contradictions that have run through the museum since it first opened as a free, publicly-owned celebration of empire. Today, the museum is one of the few remaining institutions that still claim they can’t survive without corporate sponsors like BP, just as they claim they can’t return the Elgin marbles, or pay their cleaners fairly. The disappointment is the refusal to recognise that the people it claims to hold its collection for – the public – have changed, while the museum has not.”

The Hieroglyphs exhibition is the last in the British Museum’s current 5-year BP sponsorship deal but neither BP or the Museum have confirmed whether the partnership will be renewed.

The Museum has faced regular large-scale protests over its association with BP and in 2020 it was occupied for three days during its BP-sponsored Troy exhibition.

© 2020 Ron Fassbender.

In February 2022, over 300 archaeologists and heritage professionals sent an Open letter to the Museum calling on it to drop BP as a sponsor. 

The Museum is now increasingly isolated in its support for BP. The National Portrait Gallery, Tate, Scottish Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company have ended their BP sponsorship deals, while the oil firm Shell’s partnerships with the Southbank Centre, National Theatre, BFI and National Gallery have also all been ended. Last year, BP and other oil and gas companies were “barred” from sponsoring the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, with UN High Level Champion Nigel Topping acknowledging that, “‘Existing commitments from the oil industry are insufficient and don’t align with global climate goals. It [COP] cannot offer a platform to entities that do not meet this level of commitment.’.

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