After British Museum director Hartwig Fischer reaffirmed the institution’s long-standing relationship with the oil company BP earlier this year, the museum has faced backlash on several fronts. Novelist Ahdaf Soueif resigned from its board of trustees in July, citing concerns about BP funding, and more recently, human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC called on the museum to return looted objects to their countries of origin in his book Who Owns History? Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure.
Now, Reem Alsayyah and Zoe Lafferty—two artists whose work figures in “Troy: Myth and Reality,” an exhibition opening Thursday with support from BP—have issued an open letter to the British Museum’s director and trustees urging the institution to cut its ties with BP so as to demonstrate “a positive expression of the museum’s commitment to addressing the climate emergency and standing with those who are already experiencing its impacts.”
The artists said in their letter that they were “initially thrilled” to learn that a film of Queens of Syria, a play featuring refugee women directed by Lafferty and including a performance by Alsayyah, would be included in the “Troy” show. But the letter goes on to say that “BP has directly profited from the widespread destruction and displacement of people,” including those involved with Queens of Syria.
“For over 100 years,” Alsayyah and Lafferty write, “BP and its backer the British government have fueled conflict and colonialism in the Middle East in order to access its oil reserves.” They add that BP-sponsored exhibitions “place artists such as ourselves in an impossible position, where we must decide whether it is worse to try and remove our work from the exhibition … or to allow our work to help art-wash the impacts and crimes of BP, a multinational oil and gas company that has wreaked havoc on this planet and its people.”
Queens of Syria will remain in “Troy: Myth and Reality,” according to a report by The Guardian. The release of Alsayyah and Lafferty’s letter coincided with a protest by the activist group BP or Not BP at the British Museum for which protesters dressed as classical sculptures and covered themselves in an oil-like substance.
Demands that the British Museum end its affiliations with BP follow the National Galleries of Scotland’s decision earlier this month to cease its presentation of the BP Portrait Award exhibition “in its present form.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the British Museum said, in part, “We understand that people have concerns about this kind of support and its right that those questions are raised. Without external support much programming and other major projects would not happen. Temporary exhibitions deliver tangible public benefit, deepening people’s understanding of the world’s many and varied cultures.”
Update 11/21/19, 12:28 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a statement from a British Museum spokesperson.