“I am disappointed that it took the death of an unarmed Black man for you to join the conversation about the colonial past and present of the British Museum,” says Bayryam Mustafa Bayryamali in a letter addressed to director Hartwig Fischer.
Bayryam Mustafa Bayryamali
BP or not BP? activists at the second “Stolen Goods” tour at the British Museum in May 2019 (image courtesy Martin Al-Ashouti)
Dear Hartwig Fischer,
In light of your recent statement regarding the death of George Floyd and your performative show of solidarity to the Black Lives Matter movement, I couldn’t help but wonder what actions you might take to address racism and colonialism within the British Museum. On one hand, I am happy that you have finally decided to listen to outside voices and attempt to “find the right ways to allow the Museum to better reflect our societies and our complex, contentious and blended histories, and become more than ever a theatre of human connection.” Simultaneously, I am disappointed that it took the death of an unarmed Black man for you to join the conversation about the colonial past and present of the British Museum, and its imperialist significance.
I also wish you weren’t so reactionary in your response, though I am not surprised. As a member of BP or not BP?, I have tried to engage with you on numerous instances and present you with various opportunities to right your wrongs: to break ties with BP, an oil sponsor that uses the museum to greenwash its image and is guilty of numerous instances of environmental racism, and to start listening to the voices of communities whose objects you have plundered and looted. Nonetheless, you did not listen. Why should I trust you now? What actions have you planned to address the overlaying issue of colonialism that your museum is built upon?
You claim that this time is a “generational opportunity to reconsider, rethink and rebalance the display of the collection, introducing greater diversity of collections on display, expanding museum narratives. And above all, involving multiple voices.” Again, you fail to understand that the British Museum does not just display cultural heritage from across the globe. From the Benin Bronzes to Gweagal shield, the Museum holds hostage of looted objects and separates them from their communities with alarms, vitrines, walls, guards and borders. The British Museum imprisons objects to showcase its own national significance and imperial power. Over time the museum has become instrumental in championing the orientalist belief that these objects from the communities considered as “other” would be best taken care of in the hands of the colonizer and those shaping the imperial consciousness. You are right, this might be a generational opportunity to acknowledge that the British Museum has promoted racist and colonial stereotypes for decades.
The influence of a museum that centers the experiences of white Britishness over the experiences of others shapes the understanding of the world that surrounds us. Your museum has socialized many to believe that the histories told by your museum are the only authentic one. Your imperial conditioning and tradition have been instrumental in maintaining racism and colonialism across Britain and around the globe. I am deeply perplexed by your commitment to inclusivity and diversity now. What has stopped you from taking this action before? Until you acknowledge that the British empire colonized, looted objects, started wars, and established borders while displaying world heritage as the beacon of its moral high ground, your commitments to diversity will always boil down to tokenism. Until you acknowledge that the same borders that separated families, incarcerated immigrants, displaced indigenous communities, and divided the descendants of the communities these valuable objects were stolen from, your commitment to listening to outside voices will always be only performative. The British empire was built upon racism and racist ideology, and your museum was its most valuable instrument.
You decided not to reflect on any of these matters in the face of numerous “Stolen Goods” tours and performances by BP or not BP. You are continuing your sponsorship deal with British Petroleum (BP), an oil company that is guilty of numerous instances of environmental racism. If you look at the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, it has been disproportionately affecting Black, native and poor communities in its spill response, compensation, and treatment of workers. You cannot commit stand in solidarity now without condemning BP’s crimes and instances of environmental racism. Your oil-sponsored exhibitions display stolen objects, or have workers facing low pay, poor conditions, and zero-hour contracts while managers and directors take enormous salaries. Boards of trustees of major oil-funded cultural institutions are overwhelmingly white, rich, and male, and are rarely accountable to their staff and the public. While the climate crisis is still disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, and land-based communities, until you end this sponsorship deal you cannot fully commit to addressing racism and anti-Blackness within the museum.
Even though I appreciate your current dedication addressing the colonial past and ongoing present of Britain, I would like to warn you: decolonizing museums cannot take place until we decolonize the world. I strongly believe that the issue of repatriation is essential in our fight against a world of borders and a rigorous commitment to working with local communities will enable you to expand museum narratives, I urge you not to stop just there. What kind of horizontal organizational structures you will consider implementing? Will you increase the pay of front of house, security and housekeeping staff? Will you pledge to address the issue of excessive whiteness in your senior posts? Will you commit to reshuffling your board of trustees with voices of the Global South? Will you commit to a world without borders that you have sustained and benefited from?
The British Museum has profited immensely from the plunder of formerly colonized nations, now it is time for those who have felt the brunt of imperialism to decide what the British Museum should look like in our present.
Bayryam Mustafa Bayryamali