Why I protested a British Museum exhibition of my own people’s history

Yasmin Younis explains how the museum's use of her culture and history led her to take action.

Photo by Diana More.

One day, on my daily commute to university in London, I noticed a big poster with a blown-up ancient image of a majestic Assyrian warrior riding a horse, and the phrase in big white and light green text, ‘I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria.’ Immediately, I thought to myself, ‘No way?! I have to check this exhibit out!’ – not solely because I love to learn, but because I’m Iraqi.

From as early as I could remember, my history-loving Iraqi father would always boast about our rich and incredible past, as descendants of the land between two rivers; the home of some of the world’s most powerful empires. But right underneath this exhibition’s title was the seemingly harmless green, white, and yellow flower logo that the world knows all too well: BP.

In that exact moment, I took to social media and posted a picture of the poster with the caption ‘F*** BP.’ I mean, what else do you expect when an Iraqi sees a poster promoting a special exhibition on their cultural history, only to find out that the exhibition’s sponsor is one of the companies complicit in the destruction of their homeland?

Thus began several months of internal moral conflict for me, of wanting to visit the exhibition and enjoy the right to learn about my history and culture but feeling unable to do so, because purchasing a ticket felt like surrendering my dignity as an Iraqi and becoming complicit in BP’s campaign to ‘artwash’ its neocolonial business practices. I wanted to make a statement, I needed to make a statement, because this was so wrong. I therefore decided to join with BP or not BP?, an activist theatre group who had targeted BP sponsorship for many years and were now planning a mass ‘takeover’ of the museum to highlight exactly these problems.

Photo by Safa Kadhim.

So last Saturday morning, ahead of the group’s protest performance in the museum, I arrived at a top-secret rehearsal in Central London and, standing in a circle amongst 30 or so artists and activists, we introduced ourselves and how we felt. Looking around the room, I couldn’t help but smile. ‘My name is Yasmin Younis, and I feel grateful,’ I said.

To see that even 30 people cared about how problematic and damaging both the exhibition and its sponsorship were made me feel humble. For the majority of my life it seemed like the world had turned against my people, and didn’t care that Iraqis were slaughtered, demonized, and dehumanized so long as it meant that gas prices were low and oil ‘flowed’ freely in the West. But on that day in the rehearsal room and later at the museum, where hundreds of allies showed up dressed in black and chanting proudly in solidarity, it felt as though times are changing and people around the world care about me, my culture, my people, and my homeland.

More than 300 people poured into the museum to join the performance. Together, we circled the central rotunda of the museum’s Great Court with 200 metres of fabric – equivalent to twice the height of the tower of Big Ben – containing words and symbols that spelled out the links between BP, climate change, colonialism, pollution, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We sang, we chanted, then we gathered in a huge crowd outside the doorway to the BP-sponsored exhibition itself.

Standing in front of the exhibition alongside two other incredible Iraqi speakers as we shared our painful stories, and gave a voice to Iraqis both in Iraq and in the diaspora, was like no other feeling. Seeing the crowd of activists and museum goers attentively listening and validating our pain, our frustration, our struggles, and our demands seemed to sum up everything that this campaign represented.

Yasmin (centre) with Tara Mariwany and Zeena Yasin outside the exhibition. Photo by Safa Kadhim.

The words I shared with the crowd still represent my feelings now:

The most formidable years of my life were filled with self-hatred and self-doubt as the world turned against my people and “Iraq” became synonymous with “war” and “violence.” Whenever I tried to learn about my history or my culture outside of intimate familial settings, my searches were limited to violence, war, and casualty. This is a sad reality for all Iraqis, as our culture is rich and beautiful and should be celebrated with dignity and respect. I should be able to learn about my culture without moral conflict. Iraqis in Iraq should be able to learn and celebrate their culture and history, but they can’t as these artifacts were stolen from them… To BP and the British Museum, I say how DARE you use my culture and my history as an attempt to hide your colonialist skeletons. Not my culture, not my country. No war, no warming!

Photo by Diana More

I look forward to the day when the British Museum stops promoting a destructive oil giant and starts genuinely addressing the colonial nature of so much of its collection and its displays. Until then, this feels like a movement that is only going to keep on growing.

Yasmin Younis is an MA student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. For more information about the ongoing movement to end oil sponsorship of UK arts, see bp-or-not-bp.org and artnotoil.org.uk