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Sophia Akram

Activists urge iconic British Museum to return 'stolen goods'

The campaign calls for the repatriation of stolen artefacts from UK museums [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 May, 2019

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BP or Not BP's campaign calls for the repatriation of stolen artefacts and human remains from UK museums and urges cultural institutions to reject funding from unethical sources.
In the usual weekend bustle enjoyed by London's arts and cultural scene, something appeared amiss in the large foyer of the 807,000 sq ft, 266 year old institution in Bloomsbury, London.

"Free Tour! Stolen Goods This Way" read a sign leading curious folk and those in the know to the Enlightenment Gallery where activist theatre group BP or Not BP? commenced their unofficial "Stolen Goods Tour" of the British Museum on Saturday, catching unsuspecting visitors completely by surprise.

Joined by Iraqi and Palestinian activists, the rebel tour was led by Indigenous Australian campaigner Rodney Kelly  the great-great-great-great grandson of the Gweagal warrior Cooman, who was shot by James Cook and his men on their arrival in Australia in 1770. Kelly says the bullet-scarred shield that belonged to Cooman was taken by Cook and now sits in the British Museum but should be returned.

The shield, which sits in the Enlightenment Gallery, was previously placed in an exhibition called Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, sponsored by petroleum company BP, just when it was attempting to drill offshore in the Great Australian Bight before pulling out of the action following an Indigenous-led campaign in 2015.

BP or Not BP's campaign is not only calling for the repatriation of stolen artefacts and human remains from UK museums but says that cultural institutions should not be receiving funding from unethical sources. It claims that in the time of a climate crisis, by promoting BP, the museum is providing cover for a company that is actively making climate change worse, and threatening many of the same communities that have stolen items in the museum.

Sarah Horne from the BP or Not BP group claims that the pressure on the British Museum is mounting, "In just the last few months, major arts institutions have turned down grants from the Sackler Foundation on ethical grounds  grants much larger than the amount of money the museum receives from BP."

BP or not BP activists temporarily block the entrance to an Assyria gallery [Martin Al-Ashouti]
British-Palestinian musician and activist Samir Eskanda addressed attendees in the Enlightenment Gallery, talking about the 4,429 Palestinian objects acquired by the British Museum

In March this year the National Portrait Gallery and the Sackler Foundation came to a reportedly mutual decision that a £1m donation would not go ahead. It followed controversy surrounding the Sackler family and the alleged role of their pharmaceuticals business in the fatal opioid criss in the US. The same month the Tate decided it would not receive any further donations from Sackler.

Alongside Kelly, British-Palestinian musician and activist Samir Eskanda addressed attendees in the Enlightenment Gallery, talking about the 4,429 Palestinian objects acquired by the British Museum.

Samir Eskanda shows a looted Palestinian artefact [Martin Al-Ashouti]

Providing an overview of Palestinian history, Eskanda framed his talk in the context of Palestine being seen in its historical understanding as the geographic region between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, and acknowledged that Palestinians were the indigenous inhabitants of that land. He explained that many of the objects were taken by the Palestinian Exploration Fund, a British imperial foundation, which had the aim of trying to prove the Bible right and to gather military intelligence. Excavations began in Jerusalem in 1867, he said.

"Eight years later the Earl of Shaftesbury said in a meeting with the Palestinian Exploration Fund, 'we have there a land teeming with fertility and rich industry and almost without an inhabitant, a country without a people, and all over the world we have people without a country'," explained Eskanda, providing an early example of the denial of Palestinian presence on the land.

Continuing, Eskanda said that a couple of years later the Palestinian Exploration Fund sold an 8th or 9th century BC lamp, taken from Palestine, to the British Museum.

It's not currently on display but it is a good example of how Palestinian history and existence has been excavated, appropriated and erased and denied by colonialism

"It's not currently on display but it is a good example of how Palestinian history and existence has been excavated, appropriated and erased and denied by colonialism. And how the British Museum has played a role in that."

With the tour then moving to the museum's Assyrian exhibits, Yasmin Younis from BP or not BP? spoke about her experience reconnecting with her heritage.

"History is a way for people to connect with their heritage and to uncover aspects of themselves that they never knew. It's a way to learn and grow," said Younis addressing the crowd, calling the promotion of history to a select population "shameful, hurtful and a flagrant form of art washing".

Younis explained that as an Iraqi American Muslim woman she grew up in the aftermath of 9/11 and at the peak of the Iraq war, which allowed her to distance herself from her Iraqi heritage. But as she grew older, she said she actively started to reclaim her identity while one of the galvanising moments in her life was a trip to the very museum she spoke at Saturday.

Yasmin Younis speaks in the Assyria gallery [Martin Al-Ashouti]

"It showed me how access to historical artefacts is so important. Access that is honestly a huge privilege. Each artefact in this museum belongs to a people the museum inherently does not serve."

Younis continued by referencing BP's sponsorship of looted items from ancient Iraq in the museum's recent Assyria exhibition. Historically, Assyria was a region made up of modern day northern Iraq, southeast Syria, southwest Turkey and northwest Iran.

Each artefact in this museum belongs to a people the museum inherently does not serve

In February this year, BP or Not BP launched possibly the biggest protest in the British Museum's history when hundreds joined the group in protest of BP sponsorship of the I am Ashurbanipal exhibition.

As well as acknowledging that corporate sponsorship from the oil giant in era of climate change as irresponsible, the group drew attention to the lobbying efforts of the company during the Iraq war of 2003.

According to UK government documents released under Freedom of Information in 2011, BP wanted inroads into Iraq before the 2003 invasion, as it was 'the big oil prospect', according to one of five meetings in which the Blair government discussed Iraq’s oil with BP and Shell, in the run-up to the war, revealed in meeting minutes through the book Fuel on the Fire by Greg Muttitt.

The documents did not show that oil was the reason for the war but that it was a key concern. BP then sought to ensure the company got their "fair share" of oil reserves. Critics however, claim this makes BP complicit in a devastating war.

"The British Museum continues to leave many of us at a crossroads with our desire to learn at the expense of our morals as it continues to allow BP to sponsor exhibits of the same people it exploits every single day," said Younis.

The tour ended inside the Parthenon Galleries where Petros Papadopoulos from RETURN briefed the crowd about the Parthenon Marbles, which was followed by a Q&A.

The group says the ongoing pressure has led to some positive steps. Following the group's prior Stolen Goods Tour in December 2018: The British Museum has, for the first time, agreed to let Kelly make a private visit to see his ancestor's stolen Gweagal Shield out of its case.

The day before BP or Not BP?'s rebel tour, The New Arab asked the British Museum how they responded to criticism levied against them taking sponsorship from the oil giant. A British Museum spokesperson shared the following statement:

"BP is one of the British Museum's most long standing corporate partners, supporting the Museum since 1996. The British Museum is grateful to BP for their continuing support.

The long-term support provided by BP allows the Museum to plan its programming in advance and to bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely popular exhibitions and their associated public programmes. Over four million people have enjoyed an activity at the Museum supported by BP."

Horne says however that with voices calling for the return of stolen artefacts growing even louder – including two-thirds of the UK public who believe that we’re in the middle of a climate emergency – the Director and Trustees of the British Museum can't ignore these issues much longer, "They need to start acting in the public interest and make amends for their colonial past, not cling grimly on to looted artefacts and a climate-wrecking sponsor."


Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. 

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

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