This week the British Museum opens its new exhibition: ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’. The exhibition is sponsored by oil and gas giant BP, leading an array of leading cultural figures, climate organisations, workers’ groups and scientists to urge the museum to speak out in support of human rights in Egypt. Under President Sisi’s rule, Egypt is experiencing its worst human rights crisis in its modern history. Approximately 60,000 political prisoners including journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition parties, have been arbitrarily detained, many held in lengthy pretrial detention, and subject to inhumane conditions. Egyptian human rights and environmental activists, as well as critical journalists and academics, have also been harassed, spied on, and barred from travel as part of what Human Rights Watch calls Egypt’s “general atmosphere of fear” and “relentless crackdown on civil society.”
A letter backed by over 70 signatories is now calling on the British Museum to lend its voice to the international call for the release of prisoners of conscience before COP27. These include Alaa Abd El-Fattah, an Egyptian-British writer and activist, and nephew of former trustee Ahdaf Soueif, who has been imprisoned for nine years.
The Museum will know that the new exhibition, sponsored by the oil and gas giant BP, opens just weeks before the COP27 Climate Summit takes place in Sharm-El-Sheikh. As hosts of the summit, the Egyptian government is seeking to present itself as a progressive leader on climate change. In reality, the ongoing violent crackdown and restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression severely undermine the meaningful participation of civil society at the summit.
The fact that the British Museum is opening a new Egypt exhibition without acknowledging that this major diplomatic issue is happening could put a British citizen’s life at further risk, as Egyptian authorities observe such events closely and use them to deflect criticism abroad.
Signatories of the letter include Egyptian-British actor Khalid Abdalla (The Crown), director Ken Loach, composer and musician Brian Eno, actors Mark Rylance and Juliet Stevenson, President of PCS Culture Group Gareth Spencer (which represents many museum workers), artists Ackroyd & Harvey, Professor of Heritage Studies at UCL Institute of Archaeology Rodney Harrison, and Executive Director of Oil Change International Elizabeth Bast. I am also a signatory.
BP is the largest fossil gas producer in Egypt, with close ties to President Sisi. Besides being one of the most well-known cultural institutions in the UK, the British Museum is also the leader in public engagement with Egypt. The letter argues that:
As the Museum puts Egypt in the spotlight it has both a position of influence, and the responsibility to use it. It should not celebrate Egypt’s cultural past while ignoring the human rights situation in the present, or the climate impacts Egypt faces in the future.
The letter also highlights the tens of thousands of government critics who have been imprisoned in Egypt for practising their right to freedom of expression. This includes Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who has been on hunger strike since April 2022 to demand his right to consular access by the British Embassy – which the Egyptian authorities have still not granted. Both former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss when Foreign Secretary, raised Alaa’s case with Egyptian officials, but both failed to secure consular visits or any improvement in his conditions.
By continuing to allow BP sponsorship, the British Museum also actively helps project a misleading picture of the fossil fuel titan. BP has partnered closely with successive governments and regimes in Egypt; the same laws that restrict the freedoms of civil society and imprison thousands have aided BP’s growing extraction in the country.
BP’s West Nile Delta development, purported to be the most significant investment deal in Egypt’s history, is now extracting close to 1 billion cubic feet per day of fossil gas to onshore facilities near Rosetta (Rasheed), where the Rosetta Stone – the centrepiece of the new exhibition – was excavated. Considering that representatives from both BP and the Egyptian government attended the official opening of the Museum’s last BP-sponsored exhibition on Egyptian archaeology, it’s not unreasonable to expect that both BP and the British Museum have considerable ability to, at a bare minimum, advocate on behalf of human rights in Egypt.
Signatory to the letter, writer and film-maker Omar Robert Hamilton said:
Egypt relies a great deal on its ancient past to obscure its present horrors. BP, on the other hand, works hard to rewrite its past inaction in order to obscure the future horrors it has helped create. The British Museum seems happy to help launder both of their reputations. And though it’s disappointing, it’s not really surprising. It’s just the latest example of the contradictions that have run through the museum since it first opened as a free, publicly-owned celebration of empire. Today, the museum is one of the few remaining institutions that still claim they can’t survive without corporate sponsors like BP, just as they claim they can’t return the Elgin marbles, or pay their cleaners fairly. The disappointment is the refusal to recognise that the people it claims to hold its collection for – the public – have changed, while the museum has not.
The Hieroglyphs exhibition is the last in the British Museum’s current 5-year BP sponsorship deal, but neither BP or the Museum have confirmed whether the partnership will be renewed. The Museum has faced regular large-scale protests over its association with BP. In February 2022, over 300 archaeologists and heritage professionals also sent an open letter to the Museum calling on it to drop BP as a sponsor.
The Museum is also now increasingly isolated in its support for BP. The National Portrait Gallery, Tate, Scottish Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company have ended their BP sponsorship deals, while the oil firm Shell’s partnerships with the Southbank Centre, National Theatre, BFI and National Gallery have also all been ended.
Earlier this week supporters also staged a “Read-in” inside the Museum’s Great Court. Dressed in black ‘Free Alaa’ T-shirts and holding a ‘Free Alaa’ banner, they recited passages from You Have Not Yet Been Defeated much of which was written by Alaa in prison.
The silent question it poses is stark: If international solidarity is too weak to save Alaa — an iconic symbol of a generation’s liberatory dreams — what hope do we have of saving a habitable home?
… Sisi has decided to use the summit to stage a new kind of reality show, one in which actors “play” activists who look remarkably like the actual activists who are suffering under torture in his rapidly expanding archipelago of prisons. So add that to the negative side of the ledger: This summit is going well beyond greenwashing a polluting state; it’s greenwashing a police state.