Thursday, 17 March 2016

Press Statement 17th March 2016


In July 2014 a unique part of the World’s shared cultural heritage, the beautiful, four thousand year
old statue of the Egyptian Scribe Sekhemka, was privatised and locked away from view thanks to the
unethical actions of David Mackintosh MP, Northampton Borough Council and the, apparently,
morality free auction industry who, ignoring ethical objections, put the importance of obtaining a
world record price for an internationally important museum piece over the retention of it in a
museum for everyone to enjoy.

On 29 March 2016 the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, and his accomplice, Ed Vaizey, will lift
the temporary export ban the Department of Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS) placed on the
Sekhemka statue and it will almost certainly disappear from public view, possibly forever.
In all that time, as far as we are aware, there has been no effort by the British Government or any
British institution or museum to negotiate a loan with the anonymous purchaser to ensure the
statue finds a secure and permanent home in the UK.

This fact surely shows how totally unfit for purpose the current Export Ban system is. The Secretary
of State is able to impose a Temporary Export Ban because an object is seen as of national
importance, but can then happily sit back and do precisely nothing to ensure that such importance is
being recognised by the object being saved for the nation.

This willing impotence is even more unacceptable when all relevant bodies, including the
Government’s own statutory advisers such as Arts Council England, agree that the sale of Sekhemka
was utterly unethical and should never have taken place, particularly as there remain unresolved
legal questions surrounding the sale.

The Sekhemka Action Group has noted the gallant appeal by the Egyptian Ambassador to wealthy
Egyptians asking them to raise funds to repurchase Sekhemka; if this succeeds the statue would be
on display in Egypt for six months of the year and then in the UK for the next six months.

The offer is especially generous because the sale of Sekhemka has damaged the British reputation in
Egypt, suggesting to Egyptians that Britain’s comments that it seeks to stamp out trafficking in
antiquities are just public relations and that Egyptian Cultural objects are nothing more than a
cheque to be cashed at the bank.

However, the Save Sekhemka Action Group maintains that such a repurchase would be unethical
and unhelpful since the statue should not have been sold in the first place.

We also believe that a repurchase would send strong signals to other museums and institutions that
selling a valuable artefact would be acceptable since there would be the expectation that there will
always be somebody who would stump up the cash to repurchase it for the nation.

We are therefore resigned to the likelihood that we will never see this wonderful statue again and
that this stage of our fight to “rescue” Sekhemka and return him to a free public gallery is over.
However, this does not mean that we will shrink into a corner doing nothing. Our anger and
frustration at a broken system and the people, who either exploited it or who stood by wringing
their hands, crying crocodile tears but doing nothing to prevent that exploitation, requires that we
do not.

We recognise that the British museum world is in dire straits and, based on our experience with
Sekhemka and the numerous other cases of museum closures and object disposal, any attempt to
rescue it is not going to be led by the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, Arts Council England  or the Museums Association. These bodies have demonstrated no practical initiative or leadership at a time when we are faced by unaccountable elites who can close or reassign a collection from one part of the country to another (usually London) at will, and supposedly accountable politicians who are quite happy to ride rough shod over ethics and even legal questions, to cash in and destroy overnight collections, museums and galleries which have taken decades if not centuries to build up. With Arts Council England and the Museums Association ultimately toothless in the absence of either the legal tools or the corporate will to protect the nation’s heritage it is up to us, ordinary people, to try to stop the cultural rot before all trace of the past disappears and with that the chance to show our children what we can be and what wonders we can create.

In that belief there is hope. All over the country people are fighting back against the attempts to create cultural wastelands in the name of austerity and efficiency and we feel that our experience from the Sekhemka campaign would benefit these various campaigns. For that reason we intend constituting ourselves into a new campaign group and return to the fight.

Sekhemka was a battle, not the entire war, which is far from over.

Gunilla Loe, Chair

On behalf of
the Save Sekhemka Action Group, Great Britain
the Save Sekhemka Action Group, Egypt