Workers at the British Museum in London have issued a public statement expressing their solidarity with former museum trustee, Ahdaf Soueif. The known novelist and activist stepped down from her position last week, citing the museum’s endorsement of the oil giant British Petroleum (BP), its silence on the restitution of cultural artifacts, and labor issues as some of the reasons for her resignation. The staffers coming out in support of Soueif are members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union Culture Group, which is affiliated with the Art Not Oil Coalition in the United Kingdom.
“Ahdaf’s actions highlight, once again, the troubling nature of the relationship between BP and the arts,” the PCS union statement said. “Through its sponsorship of our most prestigious cultural institutions, BP 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 workers added, reiterating their position that “access to culture is a human right, not a privilege bestowed by large corporations.” The museum’s vast collection of cultural treasures from around the world, the staffers argued, “is being used to greenwash the activities of a company whose actions threaten lives the world over, both now and in the future.”
Soueif announced her decision to resign from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees in a public letter she published on July 15 with the London Review of Books (LRB). “In early 2016, I raised the issue of BP’s very high profile sponsorship of public exhibitions with the museum’s board, the chair of trustees and the director,” Soueif wrote in her letter. “It was an education for me how little it seems to trouble anyone — even now, with environmental activists bringing ever bigger and more creative protests into the museum.”
“The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny. And yet it hardly speaks,” Soueif wrote in her letter. “It is in a unique position to lead a conversation about the relationship of South to North, about common ground and human legacies and the bonds of history,” she said, adding that the museum’s credibility on the issue “would depend on the museum taking a clear position as an ally of coming generations.”
“The Museum as an institution is in a unique position (and given its own history has a unique obligation) to lead these difficult discussions. We echo Ms. Soueif’s call for the museum to take a clear position as an ally of coming generations,” the workers’ statement continued.
“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,” Richard Lambert, Chairman of the British Museum Trustees, said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic responding to the staffers’ letter. “The British Museum is playing a very important part in the [restitution] debate,” Lambert added, noting that 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.”
“Rather than listening to his fellow trustee, Richard Lambert has chosen to side squarely with BP, repeating the spin that its business model is in line with preventing the worst climate change scenarios when in reality it plans to spend 97% of its investments on fossil fuels,” Clara Paillard, president of the PCS Culture Group, responded in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “This publicly funded museum should be standing up for their visitors, staff and the public good, but instead it’s siding with a multinational oil company that only provides around 1% of its income,” Paillard added.
In a statement earlier this month, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer announced that his institution will continue endorsing BP as its sponsor. The Art Newspaper reported that Fischer said the oil company has helped the museum “create learning opportunities,” adding, “this sort of support is vital to [the British Museum’s] mission.” News of Fischer’s statement came after 78 prominent artists signed onto a letter demanding that the National Portrait Gallery, another London cultural institution, end its relationship with BP, which sponsors the institution’s annual Portrait Award.
In its statement, the PCS Union Culture Group also thanked Soueif for echoing the demands of the British Museum workers whose jobs have been outsourced to the service provider Carillion. In 2012, the museum outsourced the jobs of 138 museum employees — cleaners, porters, technicians, plumbers, and electricians — to Carillion. Over time, the contractor laid off most of the workers, leaving only 60. In 2018, the British conglomerate went bankrupt, leaving the remaining workers in limbo. Now, the workers, some of whom worked for the museum for 20 years, are demanding to be hired directly by the museum. According to Soueif, the museum would not even enter into discussions with the workers, adding that a conversation she tried to start on the subject was “shut down.”
In an email response to Hyperallergic, the British Museum wrote:
The collapse of Carillion was a difficult situation for the Museum and for those members of staff employed by Carillion. 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 the 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 organisation, bringing the services in-house at very short notice was not a viable option.
The PCS union Culture Group represents 4,000 museums & heritage workers across England, Scotland, and Wales, including at the British Museum, Tate, and National Gallery. The union calls on the remaining British Museum Trustees “to make every effort to address the inadequacies raised.”