After quitting as British Museum trustee, writer calls for honest discussion about return of artefacts
Βy Yannis Andritsopoulos, London Correspondent for Ta Nea, Greece’s daily newspaper (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif has resigned from the British Museum’s Board of Trustees in protest at the institution’s “immovability” on returning looted artefacts. She also cited the museum’s sponsorship deal with oil company BP and its treatment of workers as reasons for her resignation.
In a damning critique of the British Museum, published in the London Review of Books, Soueif condemned the institution’s lack of public engagement with the debate around the restitution of cultural artefacts.
Asked whether she thinks that the British Museum should be engaged in talks with Greece about returning the Parthenon Sculptures, Soueif told Ta Nea, Greece’s daily newspaper: “I believe it would be in everyone’s interests for the Museum to engage in open, honest and transparent discussions with everyone who feels they have a claim on objects held by the Museum.”
Asked if she thinks that the Parthenon Sculptures should be returned to Greece, Soueif said she “cannot really comment more specifically,” but added that “these claims can only be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.”
“In November 2018, a French report commissioned by President Macron recommended the full restitution of looted African artworks. It burst open the debate over the repatriation of cultural artefacts. Museums, state officials, journalists and public intellectuals in various countries have stepped up to the discussion,” said the Booker Prize-nominated author and cultural commentator.
“The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny. And yet it hardly speaks. 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.
“Its task should be to help us all imagine a better world, and – along the way – to demonstrate the usefulness of museums. This would go some way towards making the case for keeping its collection in London. But its credibility would depend on the museum taking a clear position as an ally of coming generations.”
Soueif became a Trustee in 2012; her term would have ended in 2020.
“The Trustees regret Ahdaf Soueif’s decision to step down from the Board on which she has been a much valued voice since 2012. Ahdaf has made a significant contribution to the Board in all its endeavours and discussions, and has played a crucial role in deepening the British Museum’s engagement with Egypt and the wider Middle East, and with audiences and partners throughout the world,” said Sir Richard Lambert, Chair of the British Museum Trustees.
“Collaboration is about progressing as a whole and it is bigger than any one institution or any one individual, it’s a culture. The British Museum speaks of collaboration but it isn’t listening to Greece’s call for reunification despite the fact that the superlative Acropolis Museum celebrated its 10th anniversary less than a month ago, on 20 June,” Dame Janet Suzman, Chair of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, told Ta Nea.
“We salute Ahdaf Soueif for resigning because of the British Museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern. In her letter she writes: ‘the British Museum is not a good thing in and of itself. It is good only to the extent that its influence in the world is for the good.’ As a campaigning committee we strongly believe that if the British Museum wishes to set its stall out as a great and good universal influencer for the world – it must begin by putting old wrongs, right and the continued division of the Parthenon Marbles is a case in point,” Dame Janet said.
She added that “the revolt against colonial attitudes will not go away. It is high time the British Museum showed the heart within the beast and opened proper dialogue on the best place to display the sculptures from the Parthenon for all to understand that we are living in the 21st century and we can do what’s right by these sculptures for future generations to also take away the lesson that there is such a thing as a fairer world.”
This news report was published in Ta Nea, Greece’s daily newspaper (www.tanea.gr) on 18 July 2019.