Why we protested the British Museum to demand justice for Iraq

16 years since the momentous 2003 anti-war protests, we gathered on Saturday to demand accountability and justice for Iraqis who had suffered for the interests of corporations like BP.

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The British Museum announced it would be holding a BP-sponsored exhibition on ancient Assyrian artefacts in the summer of 2018. The same summer saw around 100,000 people being hospitalised in Basra due to the dire state of the water supply. It also saw Iraqis protest against poor living conditions, corruption, and a lack of jobs, particularly in the oil sector. One target was a major operator of Rumaila, the third largest oilfield in the world, in Basra: BP.

16 years since the momentous 2003 anti-war protests, we gathered on Saturday to demand accountability and justice for Iraqis who had suffered for the interests of corporations like BP, and do so until this very day. We wanted to challenge the British Museum for collaborating with BP, and to confront it over its own role in stealing and exploiting our culture.

The British Museum’s feeble defence for holding on to this important part of our history is that the Ottoman Empire “gave permission for the objects to be exported.  It’s no surprise that a cultural institution which is based on paying homage to Britain’s imperial past uses the exploitation by another occupying empire to create a legal basis for their claims to these artefacts.

Britain’s more recent contribution to the destruction of the country, through the 2003 Iraq war, of course makes it difficult for the Iraqi people to prioritise the conservation of their own artefacts. A colonial narrative that indigenous people are unable to preserve their own heritage echoes throughout the actions of institutions such as the British Museum.

This disregards role played by companies like BP and Shell, which lobbied the government to create those conditions in pursuit of their own profits. BP’s exploitation of Iraq was sketched out in the technical review it undertook of Rumaila months before the 2003 invasion; and in the numerous meetings it had with government officials as early as 2002 (“Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there”).

BP’s destructive role extends beyond 2003, especially in its current operating of Rumaila. Importantly, this neocolonial narrative silences the resilient efforts of Iraqis who have worked to save their heritage against all odds.

So, on Saturday, all wearing black, more than 350 of us sang in defiance, demanding an end to the business of oil and arms, and celebrating our collective power. We surrounded the rotunda in the Great Court of the British Museum with a 200 metre tapestry, describing links between colonialism, fossil fuels, oil, arms, climate catastrophe and war – and decorated with the artwork of Iraqi-Kurdish artist Mariwan Jalal.

We listened to powerful speeches from Iraqis and collectively echoed messages from Iraq. We took a moment of silence to remember the hundreds of thousands killed, and millions whose lives have been destroyed because of the interests of those who now claim to be preserving and celebrating our culture.

Iraqis within our group have also set up an alternative exhibition (open until 2 March), that seeks to recentre Iraqis within the narrative, as giant cultural arts institutions attempt to re-brand the very companies demolishing the cultures they exploit.

One powerful message we read out on Saturday came from Khalid Tawfiq Hadi, a photojournalist in Basra, exhibited at the alternative exhibition. He urged us to, “Remember Basra”: “In Basra, all the wars weren’t enough for us to die in them, it became outdated that we died by bullet or by car accident. Now, even the taps kill us, the very taps that are the sources of water to our houses.”

For more information on the role that BP played in Iraq, check out the briefing Culture Unstained, Platform, and CAAT put together.