Members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union at the British Museum in London have issued a public statement to express solidarity with the author Ahdaf Soueif, who recently resigned from the institution’s board of trustees, citing BP funding and other issues. The union is a branch of PCS’s culture sector, which is affiliated with the Art Not Oil Coalition in the United Kingdom.
Soueif stepped down from her post days after the British Museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, said that the museum would continue its relationship with BP.
The PCS union’s letter states that Soueif’s decision to leave her post on the board underscores “the troubling nature of the relationship between BP and the arts.” It goes on to say that, through its sponsorship of cultural institutions, the oil giant “is allowed to propagate the myth that, without its existence, we would not have access to the collections of our publicly funded museums and galleries.”
The British Museum staffers also echoed sentiments about repatriation that Soueif had discussed in her essay for the London Review of Books, in which she announced her resignation. PCS said in its letter, “The divisions in our country as a whole are rooted, in part, with an inability to reconcile with our colonial past. The museum as an institution is in a unique position (and given its own history has a unique obligation) to lead these difficult discussions.”
In a statement, Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum’s board of trustees, said, “BP has made it possible for us to put on exhibitions and programming that 4 million people have seen. We couldn’t have done this without that support,” adding that “the British Museum is playing a very important part in the [restitution] debate. The museum’s director Hartwig Fischer has recently visited Benin City, Ghana and Sudan as well as having regular engagement with museum directors in Berlin and Paris.”
The statement also thanks Soueif for highlighting the museum’s refusal to enter into discussions with janitorial workers, who work for the now-bankrupt service provider Carillion and want to be rehired directly by the British Museum, regarding the terms of their employment. It concludes with call for the “remaining trustees to make every effort to address the inadequacies raised.”
A British Museum spokesperson said in a statement to ARTnews, “When Carillion entered compulsory liquidation in January 2018, the museum worked closely with the Official Receiver, the Cabinet Office, and DCMS to ensure continuity of services. The museum remained open and safe throughout, and we are very grateful to all involved for their hard work and dedication. In accordance with the guidance issued by government, we made it a priority to re-tender for new service providers as soon as we could. Given the timescales involved and the limited resources within this small organization, bringing the services in-house at very short notice was not a viable option.”
The union’s declaration follows the release of an open letter signed by 78 artists, including Anish Kapoor, Sarah Lucas, and Rachel Whiteread, demanding that London’s National Portrait Gallery cut ties with BP, which funds its annual BP Portrait Award.
As activism surrounding museums’ ties to BP continues to escalate, the Tate, which ended its relationship with the oil company in 2016, has pledged to significantly reduce its carbon footprint, declaring a “climate emergency” this week.