Ahdaf Soueif made headlines after resigning as a British Museum trustee last week. Image: Randa Ali, labelled for non-commercial reuse, https://www.flickr.com/photos/randamali6/6853515163/

Museums nearing a tipping point on sponsorship, says trustee who resigned from BM

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 24.07.2019
Ahdaf Soueif calls on trustees to take a broader view of responsibilities
Museums are “approaching a tipping point” on arts sponsorship, according to Ahdaf Soueif, the British Museum trustee who resigned last week over the institution’s stance on BP sponsorship, repatriation and outsourcing.

Soueif, a British-Egyptian novelist and political commentator, told Museums Journal that her resignation had had a stronger impact than she’d expected in the media and social media. 

“It’s been mostly thoughtful and positive,” she said. “I've also received a great many personal messages of support, some of them from quite unexpected quarters. So, yes, I think we're approaching a tipping point on the specific issue of arts sponsorship.”

She added: “We have to thank the activist groups for raising awareness; for doing the research and for inventing ever more creative ways to make their point. As a response to their work and to the concern of the young, I believe that people in positions of power or, at any rate, influence, have a duty to support them by taking a clear position themselves.”  
  
Asked what the institution needed to do to address the issues she had raised, Soueif called on trustees to “take a broader view of their responsibilities”. 

“[These] should extend to ethical questions, questions of conscience, rather than be limited to practical issues,” she said.

Soueif said she had received courteous messages from some of her former colleagues on the board and parts of the administration since she had resigned. 

The novelist’s stance has won the support of many of the museum's staff, who issued a statement of solidarity through their union, the PCS Union Culture Group. 

The workers’ statement read: “PCS British Museum branch stands in solidarity with Ms Soueif and her brave and principled decision.

“Ahdaf's actions highlight, once again, the troubling nature of the relationship between BP and the arts. 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 also commended Soueif for raising concerns about the institution’s approach to repatriation and privatisation. 

“PCS British Museum branch thanks Ms Soueif for raising these points and calls on the remaining trustees to make every effort to address the inadequacies raised.”

A British Museum spokeswoman said: "The director and trustees think carefully about the nature and quality of its supporters before accepting. There is a copy of the British Museum's acceptance of donations policy on our website.

"It is right that there is an increasing focus on and consideration of sponsors in the cultural sector. But it is important to note that without external support, much public programming and other major projects would not be able to happen. The British Museum is grateful to all of its supporters and donors. Without them we could not put on the public programming or undertake the projects that we do for the benefit of our audiences in Britain and across the world."

The spokeswoman said the institution "respects people’s right to peaceful protest on site as long as it doesn’t impact on the public, the collection or staff".

She added that the BM is taking action on green issues, saying the institution is committed to reducing environmental impact throughout all aspects of its operation.

She said: "Effective waste management is one of our key strategies. We recycle 100% of all waste material produced on site and send 0% of materials to landfill. Our waste is either processed through a material recovery facility or waste to energy processing plants.

"Longer term, as part of the museum’s masterplan, we will make significant improvements to the building infrastructure to achieve a reduction in our carbon energy emissions."

The spokeswoman said that the museum would be hosting a major exhibition on the cultures and peoples of the Arctic next year, which would include a focus on weather and climate change.

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