LONDON — On Saturday, May 4, activist group BP or not BP? led a second “Stolen Goods” tour of the British Museum, during which speakers called for the repatriation of objects acquired through colonialism and an end to sponsorship from the oil company BP. The tour was the 38th action organized by the performance activist group at the British Museum.
On the Facebook event, the tour’s organizers wrote: “Refusing to return colonially-stolen artefacts is bad enough, depriving cultures around the world of vital parts of their history and glossing over the violence of colonialism. But to make things even worse the British Museum is also promoting BP, an oil company that’s threatening the lands and livelihoods of many of the same communities that those looted artefacts came from.”
The unofficial tour featured talks by Palestinian, Iraqi, Greek, and Indigenous Australian activists. Around 300 people attended the tour, including those who came especially for the event and museum visitors who decided to listen in.
The British Museum, the oldest national public museum in the world, houses eight million objects from around the world, much of which were acquired during the era of the British Empire. Saturday’s unofficial tour began in the “Enlightenment Room” – a permanent collection display which, in the words of the wall label, “uses thousands of objects to demonstrate how people in Britain understood their world” between 1680–1820. One of these objects is the Gweagal shield, acquired by Captain James Cook during an encounter with a group of Indigenous Australians in 1770.
For the past three years Rodney Kelly, an Indigenous Australian campaigner, has been calling for the return of the shield, which he claims belonged to his ancestor, the warrior Cooman. He told the audience at the tour: “The shield tells the story of that first encounter in 1770. We had everything stolen — shields, spears. It’s important because Australia is a racist place that didn’t treat us as humans from the start. People need to know the real history of what happened.”
A spokesperson for the British Museum told Hyperallergic:
The British Museum acknowledges that some objects, such as the shield, are of high cultural significance for source communities, in this case for contemporary Indigenous Australians. We are aware that some communities have expressed an interest in having objects on display closer to their originating community and we are always willing to see where we can collaborate to achieve this. The Museum would consider lending the shield again (subject to all our normal loan conditions). It was lent most recently to the National Museum of Australia in 2015-16.
The museum continued: “On Tuesday 30th [April] Rodney Kelly visited the Museum to see the shield and other related objects in the conservation studio and to meet with members of staff. It was a very positive visit, with suggestions for future collaborations to understand and interpret both the shield and other objects more fully. The Museum looks forward to continuing these discussions.”
Speakers at the “Stolen Goods” tour also targeted BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum. BP, a British multinational oil and gas company, is one of the British Museum’s longest-standing corporate partners and has supported the museum’s events and exhibitions programme for the last 22 years. It was the title sponsor for the British Museum’s recent exhibition, I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria, which featured objects from the city of Nineveh (now in northern Iraq).
In the museum’s Assyria galleries, Yasmin Younis, an Iraqi member of BP or not BP?, told the tour’s audience: “From November 2018 to February of this year, BP sponsored the British Museum’s exhibit on Ashurbanipal, a famous Assyrian King … I crave any opportunity I can to learn about my culture, but to do so by supporting the very same organization which was complicit in the destruction of my homeland was something I could not allow myself to do. How dare the British Museum use my history and my culture to hide its colonialist skeletons.”
In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for the British Museum defended the museum’s ongoing relationship with BP, saying: “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 4 million people have enjoyed an activity at the Museum supported by BP.”
The tour comes at a time of increased criticism of private sponsorship to arts institutions. In the last few months, several museums — including the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Jewish Museum in Berlin — have discontinued their relationship with Sackler family. The Sacklers are the owners of the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, a highly addictive drug which has fuelled the opioid crisis in the US.
European museums have also been forced to confront the question of repatriation. A report, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron and published last year, called for a change to French law and the permanent return of all objects removed without consent from Africa if the countries of origin request their repatriation. It is currently illegal under UK law for public museums to deaccession objects from their collections, except in very limited circumstances.