A Syrian refugee and performer starring in a prominent British Museum exhibition has condemned the institution for having British Petroleum (BP) as a primary sponsor of the display.
Reem Alsayyah, who is a performer starring in the film “Queens of Syria” which is featured in the British Museum’s “Troy: Myth and Reality” exhibition, made the condemnation in an open letter to the Museum’s Director Hartwig Fischer and the trustees.
In the letter, Alsayyah stated that her discovery that BP would be sponsoring the exhibition was a “devastating blow” due to her stance that “BP’s business has had devastating impacts on people and the planet…It has taken decisions that have undoubtedly contributed to conflict, refugee crises and the worsening climate emergency.”
In the letter, which was also signed by “Queens of Syria” Director Zoe Lafferty, she stressed that BP “has directly profited from the widespread destruction and displacement of people.” Alsayyah did not detail exactly how the oil company caused refugee crises and the displacement of peoples, but the film she performs in – consisting of 13 female Syrian refugee performers – has that theme at its heart and focus.
Alsayyah concluded the letter by stating that the BP’s sponsorship of the exhibition put her into “an impossible position”, and called on the British Museum to “sever your ties to BP”. She also touched on the consideration of removing her and her team’s work from the museum and splitting from the institution, saying: “We must decide whether it is worse to try and remove our work from the exhibition, taking away the chance that this show can shine a light on the harsh realities that our team are living under, or to allow our work to help artwash the impacts and crimes of BP, a multinational oil and gas company that has wreaked havoc on this planet and its people.”
The British Museum responded by assuring that it understands the “concerns about this kind of support,” but stressed on the importance that BP’s sponsorship has had on its arts programming and projects. “Temporary exhibitions deliver tangible public benefit, deepening people’s understanding of the world’s many and varied cultures,” a Museum spokesperson said.
A BP spokesperson also commented on the letter, saying: “While BP supports the British Museum’s Troy exhibition, we have no curatorial input into the exhibition.” They also added that the company “completely rejects the outrageous allegations.”
The open letter written by Alsayyah comes amid a number of prominent protests against BP’s sponsorship of many major arts institutions and programmes including National Galleries Scotland announcing that it was severing ties with the petroleum company last week.
In July, Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif resigned as a trustee of the British Museum, accusing it of being “born and bred in empire and colonial practice”, and that even though the institution “is coming under scrutiny…it hardly speaks.”
Last year, Iraqi performers claimed the British Museum and BP were whitewashing BP’s complicity in the 2003 coalition invasion of Iraq, using artefacts from modern-day Iraq. This came after revelations that according to UK government documents released in 2011, BP were “desperate” to get into Iraq before the 2003 invasion, as it was “the big oil prospect”.
The 2003 war destroyed Iraq and has led to over a decade of unrest, sectarian violence and the emergence of Daesh in the country.