Activists at the museum this morning (photo courtesy Ron Fassbender)

Activists staged a “read-in” calling for the release of Egypt’s political prisoners outside the British Museum during a preview this morning for the upcoming exhibition Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt, sponsored by British Petroleum (BP). Culture Unstained, the organization behind the action, targets fossil fuel companies’ involvement in arts and culture and has previously criticized the institution for its relationship with the oil giant.

Activists clad in “Free Alaa” T-shirts read from Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s collection of texts You Have Not Yet Been Defeated (2021). El-Fattah, a British-Egyptian political activist and blogger, has been detained as a prisoner of conscience for nearly a decade in horrific conditions for his involvement in the 2011 revolution which led to the removal of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

In a letter to the museum’s board of trustees signed by dozens of activists and cultural figures, Culture Unstained urges the institution to not only “look to Egypt’s past but to take a stand in support of human rights in Egypt today.” The missive points to BP’s close relationship to current autocratic Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as political prisoners like Alaa Abd El-Fattah wither away behind bars.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a spokesperson said the British Museum “respects other people’s right to express their views.” “Museums today have a mixed funding model and we need corporate and private money to fulfill 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,” the spokesperson said, adding that BP’s corporate partnership contract runs until 2023.

In April 2022, El-Fattah committed to a hunger strike that has lasted well over a hundred days, issuing a list of demands surrounding the release of political prisoners who are unlawfully held in pre-trial detention before the COP27 Climate Summit takes place this November in the Egyptian city of Sharm-El-Sheikh. In an attempt to secure El-Fattah’s release, his family was able to finalize his British citizenship earlier this year with the help of his mother, Laila Soueif, a London-born professor at Cairo University.

Despite former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s efforts, El-Fattah, consuming hardly 100 calories a day, remains imprisoned without consular access to the British Embassy.

“By allowing the company to sponsor this exhibition, the Museum is actively assisting BP in projecting a misleading picture of its business,” the letter reads. “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 post calling for El-Fattah’s release (screenshot Rhea Nayyar/Hyperallergic via Instagram)

In February 2022, Culture Unstained released a series of documents accessed via a Freedom of Inquiry (FOI) request indicating that the British Museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, was actively pursuing a renewal of the sponsorship contract with BP despite the general unpopularity of their relationship. The documents reveal that regardless of mounting pressure to cut ties with the company, Fischer met with BP staff members in June 2021 to discuss the different options regarding BP’s future support after Spring 2023. Over the last six years, other British cultural institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Galleries have ditched funding opportunities from BP after decades of support.

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, Omar Robert Hamilton, New York- and Cairo-based filmmaker and a cousin of El-Fattah, said that “Egypt relies a great deal on its ancient past to obscure its present horrors.”

“BP, on the other hand, works hard to rewrite its past inaction in order to obscure the future horrors it has helped create,” Hamilton continued. “The British Museum seems happy to help launder both of their reputations.”

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...