‘Head in the Sand’: Is the British Museum in Denial Over Colonial Loot?

In further news: a spotlight on arts and oil sponsorship; Ai Weiwei to direct ‘Turandot’

Buddhist sculptures, British Museum, London, 2018. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Buddhist sculptures, British Museum, London, 2018. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The authors of a landmark study of colonial-era treasures held in French museums – commissioned by Emmanuel Macron and published last year – have turned their fire on the British Museum in London. Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy told The Guardian that the institution and its trustees ‘can’t hide themselves any longer on the issue’ and described their actions as akin to an ostrich with its ‘head in the sand’. Sarr and Savoy’s study called for a mass restitution project to return hundreds of artefacts from European museums to Africa. Sarr and Savoy dismissed the idea that loans of items were sufficient. Sarr said: ‘It’s not enough because in a loan the right of the property belongs to you.’ Savoy added: ‘There’s a symbolic dimension around property rights.’ A British Museum spokesperson said that the institution welcomed the spotlight on artefacts’s provenance: ‘We believe the strength of the collection is its breadth and depth which allows millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect.’

Meanwhile, UK climate change campaigners are planning to protest the British Museum’s upcoming ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’ exhibition, which will showcase rare artefacts from the ancient city. The protest group BP or not BP? have denounced the museum’s ties to BP sponsorship. Campaigners are demanding that the institution revoke its deal with the oil company, and are preparing to occupy its galleries and disrupt entrances during the exhibition, which is due to open in November. Scrutiny around the arts and oil sponsorship in the UK reemerged last week after the actor Sir Mark Rylance resigned from his position of associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company over its links to BP. The oil giant also has sponsorship deals with the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery in London. In a statement, British Museum director Hartwig Fischer commented: ‘We are grateful to BP for their ongoing support without which important exhibitions such as these would simply not be possible.’

Ai Weiwei is to direct Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot. The Chinese dissident artist will also design the set and costumes for the production which will open in March at the Rome Opera, Reuters reported. Turandot debuted in Milan in 1926 – the opera, which is set in China and tells the story of Prince Calaf and his quest to win the hand of Princess Turandot, is best known for the aria ‘Nessun Dorma’. Ai suggested that his production – his first theatrical work – would be explicitly political: ‘This Turandot will be from my point of view […] It will be an opera immersed in the contemporary world, the present cultural and political struggles represented through Puccini’s story.’

In further news: Blum & Poe gallery now represents Mohamed Bourouissa; Brooklyn nonprofit NURTUREart is to close, citing a ‘confluence of resource challenges and a shifting environment for non-profits’; and the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize 2019 recipient is Genta Ishizuka, recognised for his lacquerware piece Surface Tactility #11 (2018) – the winning entry is awarded EUR50,000 and an exhibition of the finalists’ work will be on show at Isamu Noguchi’s indoor stone garden ‘Heaven’ in the Sogetsu Kaikan building, Tokyo, until 22 July.

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