Hundreds join Indigenous-led tour of British Museum, for repatriation and against BP

Unofficial tour guides and hundreds of attendees descended on the British Museum yesterday, urging it to repatriate objects acquired through colonialism and end its long-standing partnership with the oil giant BP. Museum galleries were packed with people listening to rebel museum talks, and some routes through the museum were temporarily closed by security in response to the crowds.

The crowd of 300 applaud the rebel speakers. Photo by Martin Al-Ashouti.

The protest, entitled The British Museum Stolen Goods Tour: Colonialism, Carbon & Cook, was organised by performance activists BP or not BP? and follows the largest-ever protest in the 260-year history of the British Museum in February by the same group. This was the group’s 38th action inside the museum, calling on the institution to behave more ethically with regard to its collections and to stop promoting a fossil fuel company in the middle of a climate emergency.

Talks from Palestinian, Iraqi, Greek and Indigenous Australian activists joined the dots between the repatriation of stolen artefacts, ethical sponsorship of the arts and the climate crisis. Organisers estimated at least three hundred people joined the tour, including those who had come especially for the event and museum visitors who saw what was happening and decided to stop and listen. Five hundred flyers were distributed to participants and the public.

The rebel tour was led by Rodney Kelly, an Indigenous Australian campaigner who is calling for the return of his ancestor’s shield which was violently stolen by James Cook and his men on their first arrival in Australia in 1770. He told the gathered crowd in the museum’s “Enlightenment Gallery”:

“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.

“We can learn so much from studying this shield. It’s time the British Museum took this request seriously. I grew up without an identity as we weren’t allowed to learn about our culture. That’s why this shield is so important. It’s a symbol of our resistance to colonisation”

Rodney Kelly in front of the Gweagal Shield. Photo by Martin Al-Ashouti.

Samir Eskanda, a Palestinian musician and activist with BP or not BP? talked about the more than 4,000 Palestinian artefacts acquired by the British Museum.

He said that the presence of ancient Palestinian objects in the museum was an example of how “Palestinian history and indeed existence has been excavated, appropriated, erased and denied by colonialism, and how the British Museum has played its role in that”

He continued: “It’s clear that justice for Palestinians, including through the return of its stolen cultural heritage, and the end of Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid, is intimately connected with climate justice. The British Museum must play its part in ending this denial of justice.”

The tour then moved to the Assyria galleries where Yasmin Younis, an Iraqi member of BP or not BP?, told the crowds:

“Just a few months before the invasion and occupation of Iraq, BP lobbied the British government to help the company access Iraq’s immense oil reserves. BP called the reserves “Vitally important – more important than anything we’ve seen for a long time.”…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 [BP] which was complicit in the destruction of my homeland was something I could not allow myself to do.”
She also said:
“Many of those who would feel emotional just looking upon a simple historical artefact are robbed of the right, accessibility, and chance to learn about their own histories simply because these objects are locked up in a place thousands of miles away from the rightful owners.”
Yasmin Younis addresses the crowds in the Assyria galleries. Photo by Martin Al-Ashouti.

The hundreds of tour participants then filled the space with chanting:

Stolen land: give it back!

Stolen culture: give it back!

Stolen climate: drop BP!

The tour then moved to the Parthenon Marbles, where Petros Papadopoulos from RETURN, a campaign group supported by the BCRPM (British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles), said:

“The Parthenon sculptures that have been held in this room, right here, where time has frozen for 200 years, these artefacts cannot be fully appreciated in this situation. How can they, when they’ve been decapitated, in bits and pieces all over the world? There is an urgent need for this monument to be reunified…this is not a Greek matter, it’s a matter for the world, it’s a matter for humanity.”

Petros Papadopoulos talks to the crowd in front of the Parthenon Marbles. Photo by Martin Al-Ashouti.

Three speakers from BP or not BP? closed the unofficial tour by saying:

“It’s the same small elite – a handful of managers and trustees at the top of these big arts institutions – who are signing deals with oil companies and also ignoring calls for repatriation, despite growing concern about both these issues from museum visitors, staff and the wider arts sector. The British Museum’s Director and managers seem to believe that putting certain artefacts on display for people in London is more important than delivering justice for cultures devastated by colonialism. They think that promoting BP in return for 0.5% of the museum’s budget is more important than the lives and livelihoods of people suffering from climate disasters around the world.”

“BP’s extractive business model represents a kind of modern-day colonialism, adding an extra level of painful irony when the company sponsors exhibitions containing looted artefacts…We refuse to accept the linked injustices of extractivism, colonialism, and climate change. We refuse to accept the presence of BP in our city and in our museums. We refuse to accept having BP’s oily logo plastered onto our culture. BP or not BP? will continue to protest at the museum until we have kicked out BP.

Members of BP or not BP?, dressed as robbers, temporarily block one of the entrances to the Assyria galleries. Photo by Martin Al-Ashouti.

The tour concluded with a Q&A with the speakers and some final words from Rodney Kelly:

“We’re coming together, getting stronger and starting to reclaim our culture. We are trying to make our countries whole again. The time is now.”

Sarah Horne, from BP or not BP?, said:

“Today has been a major success, with an even larger turnout than our first Stolen Goods Tour in December. This shows how high the profile of these issues has become, and how the pressure on the British Museum is building. In just the last few months, major arts institutions have turned down grants from the Sackler Foundation on ethical grounds – grants much larger than the amount of money the museum receives from BP. The voices calling for the return of stolen artefacts are growing ever louder, and a new poll found that two-thirds of the UK public believe we’re in the middle of a climate emergency. The Director and Trustees of the British Museum can’t ignore these issues much longer – they need to start acting in the public interest and make amends for their colonial past, not cling grimly on to looted artefacts and a climate-wrecking sponsor.”

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