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Sun 21 Jul 2019 01:27 PM

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Arab world no longer has a museum culture, says writer Ahdaf Soueif

After resigning from the British Museum, the Egyptian novelist also calls on Arab museums to better serve their communities

Arab world no longer has a museum culture, says writer Ahdaf Soueif

The Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, who recently resigned as a trustee of the British Museum citing the institute’s lack of social conscience, has called on Arab museums to do more to uplift societies.

The award-winning novelist urged museums in the Middle East to deploy their services to serve the community in a ‘much, much better’ way.

“The issue, of course, is that we [Arabs] no longer have a culture where it's part of a child's normal experience to be taken to a museum… for the vast majority of the population in many Arab countries, they can't even afford the transport to get themselves and their children to a museum,” she said.

Shock resignation

Referring to the British museum being sponsored by the oil giant BP, as well as issues with staff treatment and cultural repatriation, the writer told Arabian Business: “I was becoming more and more aware of the issues, and felt too insulated from these issues while sitting in the boardroom.

“The British Museum has a star exhibition coming up, which will be sponsored by BP, and will attract large protests. I felt I had to make my position very clear before then.”

In a blog post for the prestigious London Review of Books, Soueif accused the British Museum of collaborating “with those who are unmaking the world before our eyes”.

Soueif, whose books include the Man Booker listed 'Map of Love’, told Arabian Business her resignation was not because of a single issue.

"The museum is doing fine and impressive work at ground level; in its international training programme, its co-operation with museums across the globe, its community outreach, and more. But it also has a responsibility to coalesce and articulate all this work into some clearly expressed ethical positions on the issues which it connects with: will it engage in art-washing companies that are doing irrevocable harm to the planet?

"Will it allow itself to benefit financially from the exploitation of labour? Will it not help a global conversation that aims to improve our common understanding of history and of each other? These are questions of its public strategy which it should take a clear position on,” she said.

The museum’s chair of trustees, Richard Lambert, said the resignation “of a valued and very supportive trustee for seven years” was a “sad moment” and “unexpected”.

He defended the museum’s acceptance of BP sponsorship – a deal which runs until 2023.

“BP has made it possible for us to put on exhibitions which four million people have seen… We couldn’t have done without that support.”

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