Human rights campaigners have urged the British Museum to back calls for the release of political prisoners in Egypt as its blockbuster hieroglyphs exhibition opens.
A letter with more than 70 signatories, including cultural leaders, scientists and climate activists, asked the British Museum’s director not to “celebrate Egypt’s cultural past while ignoring the human rights situation in the present”.
The letter called on the British Museum to lend its support and influence to international calls for the Egyptian government to release all prisoners of conscience ahead of Cop27, which takes place in Sharm el Sheikh next month.
Human rights campaigners say the Egyptian government is using the summit to paint itself as progressive while continuing to pursue a brutal crackdown on civil liberties within the country.
A read-in was staged outside the museum during the exhibition’s VIP preview earlier this week calling for the release of the Egyptian-British writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who has been imprisoned for the past nine years and on hunger strike for more than 190 days. The message "free Alaa" was projected onto the museum's facade.
El-Fattah is the nephew of former British Museum trustee Ahdaf Souief, who resigned in 2019 in protest at the museum’s ongoing sponsorship deal with the oil giant BP, and is one of the signatories of this week's letter.
“The fact that the British Museum will open a new Egypt exhibition without acknowledging that this major diplomatic issue is happening could put a British citizen’s life at further risk,” said the letter. “Egyptian authorities observe such events closely and use them to deflect criticism abroad.”
The Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt exhibition is sponsored by BP, and representatives from the oil company and the Egyptian government are believed to have attended the preview.
The letter criticised the museum’s ongoing relationship with BP, adding: “By allowing the company to sponsor this exhibition, the museum is actively assisting BP in projecting a misleading picture of its business. BP has partnered closely with successive governments and regimes in Egypt, and the same laws and practices that limit the role of civil society and have condemned thousands to imprisonment have aided the expansion of BP’s fossil fuel extraction in the country.”
A British Museum spokesperson said: “Museums today have a mixed funding model and we need corporate and private money to fulfil our public mission, to deliver unique learning experiences. Support from the corporate sector is essential for museums and arts organisations in times of reduced funding. This support means we can successfully plan exhibitions long-term and deliver public benefit for millions of people. BP are a long-standing corporate partner, and their current contract with us runs until 2023.
“The British Museum respects other people’s right to express their views and allows peaceful protest onsite at the museum as long as there is no risk to the collection, staff or visitors.”