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Repatriation of artefacts forces Egypt writer to resign from British Museum 

Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif [Women of Egypt/Facebook]
Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif [Women of Egypt/Facebook]

Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif today stepped down from her position on the board of the British Museum criticising it for its “immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.”

The author of 1999 Booker Prize nominated “The Map of Love”, Soueif said she had resigned because of the museum’s handling of multiple issues including BP’s sponsorship of public exhibitions and the repatriation of cultural artefacts.

The chair of the board of trustees, Sir Richard Lambert, called Soueif’s resignation “unexpected” and referred to her as a “valued and very supportive trustee for seven years,” according to the Guardian.

A key factor in Soueif’s resignation was BP’s “very high profile sponsorship” of public exhibitions such as “Troy: Myth and Reality set to open this year in November. She said that the money BP gives the museum is attainable elsewhere and that the museum’s relationship with the oil company showed schoolchildren that this relationship “matters more than [their] legitimate and pressing concerns”.

Lambert defended the museum’s ties to BP, saying that the oil company has “made it possible… to put on exhibitions which 4 million people have seen,” and that they were grateful for BP’s strong support.

BP’s sponsorship of cultural institutions such as the British Museum has sparked protests from climate change activists. Last month, Sir Mark Rylance, an English actor, resigned from the Royal Shakespeare Company because of its ties with BP.

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Another key issue was the museum’s handling of outsourced staff whose jobs were hanging in the balance after the 2018 collapse of service provider Carillion. Soueif criticised the museum for refusing to “even enter into discussions with the workers”. She contrasted this with the public nature of the museum, asking what it means “when the employment policies of a free-to-enter museum push its workers into economic precarity”.

In a blog post for the London Review for Books, Soueif also criticised the museum for “hardly speaking” in the debate over the repatriation of cultural artefacts, considering England’s colonial history during which many artefacts were looted from their countries of origin and brought to the museum. Egypt is seeking the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone from the museum, while Greece seeks the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles.

Lambert disagreed, saying that the museum was “playing a very important part in the debate”.

Soueif ended her post by acknowledging the museum’s excellence in terms of research and creating a global network of curators. She emphasised how the museum’s extensive collection does not make it “a good thing in and of itself”, rather this is determined by its “influence in the world”. The collection is a tool with which the museum can shape the “future of the planet and its peoples” but also one with which it can “continue to project the power of colonial gain and corporate indemnity”.

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