Letter to the Trustees of the British Museum on the opening of the Hieroglyphs exhibition

11 October 2022

Dear Hartwig Fischer, George Osborne and the Trustees of the British Museum,

We are writing to you as you prepare to open the Museum’s next major exhibition – ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’ – to urge you not just to look to Egypt’s past but to take a stand in support of human rights in Egypt today. Egypt, under President Sisi’s rule, is experiencing its worst human rights crisis in its modern history. Tens of thousands of government critics including journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition parties, have been arbitrarily detained, many held in lengthy pretrial detention, and subject to inhumane conditions.

These include Alaa Abd El-Fattah, an Egyptian-British writer and activist, and nephew of former 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. On August 25th, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson “expressed his hope for swift and positive progress on the issue” in a call with President Sisi. The fact that the British Museum will open a new Egypt exhibition without acknowledging that this major diplomatic issue is happening could put a British citizen’s life at further risk. Egyptian authorities observe such events closely and use them to deflect criticism abroad. 

The Museum will be aware that the new exhibition, sponsored by the oil and gas giant BP, opens just weeks before the COP27 Climate Summit takes place in Sharm-El-Sheikh. As hosts of the summit, the Egyptian government is seeking to present itself as a progressive leader on climate change. In reality, the ongoing violent crackdown and restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression severely undermine the meaningful participation of civil society at the summit.

BP is also eager to present itself as a responsible climate leader ahead of the summit. 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. In the town of Idku, a short distance from where the Rosetta Stone was excavated, the local community successfully resisted the construction of a BP gas processing plant but, following the introduction of a regressive anti-protest law, that kind of community opposition became all but impossible. BP is now extracting close to 1 billion cubic feet per day of gas from its West Nile Delta gas fields. 

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. Museums are not neutral. Representatives of the Egyptian government and BP will no doubt have been invited to attend the exhibition’s opening and we call on you to take the opportunity this week to raise the case of Alaa’s imprisonment and support the international call for the release of all prisoners of conscience before COP27 opens. 


  1. Khalid Abdalla, Actor
  2. Ahdaf Soueif, Author
  3. Valeria Luiselli, Author
  4. Yasmine El Rashidi, Author
  5. Brian Eno, Composer and Musician
  6. Gareth Spencer, President, PCS Culture Group
  7. Ackroyd & Harvey, Artists
  8. Professor Rodney Harrison, Professor of Heritage Studies, Institute of Archaeology, UCL
  9. Elizabeth Bast, Executive Director, Oil Change International
  10. Yasmin El-Rifae, Writer and Author
  11. Mark Rylance, Actor
  12. Juliet Stevenson, Actor
  13. Bianca Jagger, Founder, President and Chief Executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation
  14. Maxine Peake, Actor
  15. Steve Coogan, Comedian, Actor and Screenwriter
  16. Harriet Walter, Actor
  17. Kyle Lewis Jordan, British Museum Friends Advisory Council Member and Curating for Change Fellow (Ashmolean and Pitts River’s Museums, Oxford)
  18. Dr Stuart Parkinson, Executive Director, Scientists for Global Responsibility
  19. Sue Willman, Assistant Director of Clinical Legal Education & Supervising Solicitor, King’s Legal Clinic, KCL
  20. Kate Anderson, Green New Deal Rising
  21. Tori Tsui, Speaker, consultant and Co-founder of Bad Activist Collective
  22. ​​Elaine Gilligan, Chief International Advisor, Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland)
  23. Women of Colour Global Women’s Strike
  24. Omar Robert Hamilton, Writer and Film-maker
  25. Caryl Churchill, Playwright
  26. Kamila Shamsie, Author
  27. Isabella Hammad, Author
  28. Sarah Woolley, General Secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU)
  29. Julie Christie, Actor
  30. Mike Leigh, Director
  31. Miriam Margolyes OBE, Actress
  32. Ava Bruges, UKSCN London
  33. Victoria Brittain, Author and journalist
  34. Tessa Khan, Director, Uplift
  35. Dorothy Guerrero, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Global Justice Now
  36. Gareth Evans, Adjunct Moving Image Curator, Whitechapel Gallery
  37. Dr Nadine El-Enany, Reader in Law, Birkbeck School of Law, and Co-Director of Centre for Research on Race and Law
  38. Ken Loach, Film Director
  39. Loraine Monk, Joint Chair of Artists Union England
  40. Helena Wilson, Equity for a Green New Deal
  41. Roy Battersby, Filmmaker
  42. Pankaj Mishra, Author
  43. Peter Kosminsky, Screenwriter and Director
  44. David Calder, Actor
  45. John Keane, Artist
  46. Francesca Willow, Writer, Artist and Activist
  47. Prof. Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, Filmmaker
  48. Hilary Westlake, Chair, Artists for Palestine UK
  49. Carmen Calill, Writer and Publisher
  50. Penny Woolcock, Filmmaker
  51. Bella Freud, Fashion Designer
  52. Trevor Griffiths, Playwright
  53. Adam Broomberg, Artist
  54. Paul Laverty, Screenwriter
  55. Es Devlin, Artist and Designer
  56. Roger Waters, Musician
  57. Brigid Keenan, Author
  58. Dr Mirjam Brusius, FRHistS, Editor ‘100 Histories of 100 Worlds in 1 Object’
  59. Dr Gavin Grindon, Senior Lecturer in Curating, Dept of Philosophy and Art History, University of Essex
  60. Miranda Pennell, Artist and Filmmaker
  61. Professor Jacqueline Rose, Co-Director, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities
  62. Zoe Lafferty, Artists On The Frontline
  63. Zita Holbourne, FRSA Artist, Author, Curator, Human Rights Campaigner, National Chair BARAC UK
  64. Will Attenborough, Actor
  65. Paul Valentine, Equity Councillor
  66. Mary Church, Head of Campaigns and Interim Co-director, Friends of the Earth Scotland
  67. Suzanne Jeffery, Chair, Campaign Against Climate Change
  68. Andrew Simms, New Weather Institute
  69. Louise Hazan, Co-founder, Tipping Point UK
  70. Dr Chris Garrard, Co-director, Culture Unstained
  71. Richard Solly, Co-ordinator, London Mining Network
  72. Poppy Flint, BP or not BP?
  73. Asad Rehman, Executive Director, War on Want 
  74. Hannah Davey, Liberate Tate
  75. Gemma Jackson, Production Designer
  76. Clara Paillard, Coordinator, Liverpool Climate Justice Coalition
  77. Robert Noyes, Co-director, Platform
  78. Dr Gail Bradbrook, Co-founder, Extinction Rebellion
  79. Leo Murray, Co-director, Possible
  80. Professor Sara Chandler KC (Hon)
  81. Green Party Trade Union Group
  82. Dr Drew Pearce, Imperial College London
  83. Imperial Climate Action
  84. Yara Rodrigues Fowler, author
  85. Dr Rebecca Hillman, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communications, Drama, Film and TV, University of Exeter
  86. China Miéville, Author
  87. Alexei Sayle, comedian, writer