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Caged Kings

February 22, 2019

‘As an Iraqi, I’m grateful that part of our archaeological heritage is kept safe at the British Museum, as opposed to looted/ wilfully destroyed by religious extremists/ vandalised on site/ ineffectively conserved.’

The above is a longer version of a tweet I drafted, then discarded.

It was a response to this thread, condemning The British Museum for looting archaeological artefacts. This was/ is the case of the Parthenon, or Elgin Marbles as they are politically incorrectly named, or Assyrian reliefs, part of The Museum’s current exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria.

I discarded my tweet because it didn’t feel right, as if I’m somehow betraying my country folk with an accusation of distrust. Or that I was condoning Colonial dominance, maybe even diminishing its devastating impact on the world, not least the Middle East.

At the same time, I feel oddly positioned in terms of the morality concerning this topic. I have a BSc in Archaeological Science, and my final year dissertation looked at the history of archeology as a discipline. More, I worked at The British Museum’s Coins & Medals Department on their Islamic coin collection, so I got a taste of the day-in-day-out workings of this institution. This included many discussions on how to make collections relevant and accessible to the public, as well, almost always, the lack of funding.

I heard of the BP protests before the exhibition itself, through a group I am part of (be it inactively) The Iraqi Transnational Collective (ITnC). A few ITnC individuals were involved, with other community groups like BP or not BP!, in organising the protest inside The Museum.

Too entangled in my family life to pay much attention, I did not fully register news of the exhibition. It was only until after I tweeted to say how much I enjoyed the Ashurbanipal exhibit, I received a private message with this video outlining the story behind the BP protests.

My sleep deprived mummy brain connected the dots.

In short, the objection is in the contradiction between BP sponsoring an exhibition on Assyria, and its role in modern day Iraq, namely its implicit role in the ongoing destruction of Iraq post-2003 when it gained access to Iraq’s oil fields.

This also stands beside BP’s destructive forces, not only in Iraq, but environmentally on a global scale

BP and corporate sponsorship aside for a moment, and back my erased tweet and moral conundrum.

Provenance is one issue often linked to discussions on The British Museum holding world heritage artefacts. I’d personally choose to separate these two.

Regardless how the Assyrian palace gates made their way to their current location, they have arguably been in better hands than their place of origin. I wouldn’t go into spine curdling examples of various destructive forces that prevailed over Iraq’s fragile remnants of the past; from collateral damage to ISIS.

I know, from my time working there, objects are no longer acquired without rigorous inquiries into their provenance This does not make-up from past objects being, for lack of a more suitable word, looted from their original homes. Still, I choose to focus on a more recent past, where these objects have, for better and for worse, been kept safe, taken care of, exhibited to the public for free, studied by experts from across the world…

If Iraq was a peaceful country, with a thriving national museum, world renowned experts in their field, a budding tourist industry, where many from across the globe trotter over to marvel at these ancient wonders, then I would reconsider my current position. Sadly, this isn’t the case. For now, some of our most precious artefacts are kept safe inside foreign cages.

My father has been a dedicated collector of a particular type and period of coinage. When I worked at The British Museum, he used to tell me that one day, he will leave his beloved coin collection to me. Once, he asked what I’d do with them, and without a moment’s hesitation, I happily declared I’d donate them all to the British Museum. ‘Why?!’, he gasped, ‘these would be yours, why would you donate them?’ My reply, of course, is that I believe in open public access, not private collections. He wasn’t convinced, but accepted the argument. He then asked, ‘why the British Museum? Why not a museum in Iraq?’ I gave reasons equivalent to the above. He just looked sad. Not for me or him, but I imagined, for the state of our beautiful Iraq.

He also never mentioned bequeathing his collection to me after that.

Back to BP.

Well, I don’t know. BP has been a relatively longstanding corporate sponsor of major art and historic houses in the UK. The protests have played an important role in inviting us, the public, to question how these national institutions receive funding. And I felt pride at the scale of the protests, and that Iraqis were in the news standing together (literally) with a united cause..

The hypocrisy from BP does not surprise me.

The British Museum played a significant role in publicising and helping document the many looted objects post-2003 (led by Dr John Curtis), and continues to support Iraqi experts inside Iraq. Both the latter began during my time there.

There isn’t, for me, a clear moral position here.

As an ignorant punter, I loved the exhibition. The digital features brought life and colour, literally, to these ancient reliefs. The outreach activities, packed with families during this half term week, inspired me and my toddler with its invitation to look at Assyrian cities and motifs. Again, I felt inklings of pride as my dear Iraq was being seen and discussed outside the usual contexts of war, casualties and destruction.

BP was not on my radar until my visit to Twitter.

I once refused to take a (very well paid) voiceover job promoting Nestle, because, well, it was for Nestle.

Has my moral compass become slack?

Or maybe, I’ve come to accept that you take what you can get, even when an evil giant offers you a golden egg…

***

There’s now a parallel exhibition on until early next month, at the lovely P2 Gallery space, with a familiar sounding title: I am British Petroleum, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice.

I plan to visit the exhibit, to refresh my moral compass…

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