Science Museum administrator resigns following “contested heritage” requests
A director of one of the UK’s leading museum groups withdrew his reappointment in protest at being asked to “explicitly express support” for government policy against removal of objects litigious history.
Sarah Dry, author on the history of science, warned in a letter seen by the Financial Times that complying with these terms would damage the reputation of the Science Museum Group, jeopardize its board of directors and “betray the public trust.” .
“Any requirement that seeks to restrict the independent curatorial and interpretive work of national museums violates the long-established principle of independent bodies,” she wrote to the group’s board of directors and chairman, Dame Mary Archer. . “Today, it is a contested heritage. Tomorrow it might be another problem. This has several detrimental effects.
His objections reflect growing concerns in the arts sector over Boris Johnson’s systematic drive to reshape opinion on the boards of museums, galleries and media groups by dampening dissenting voices and appointing more trustees. aligned with government policy.
This follows the decision of Sir Charles Dunstone, the billionaire founder of Carphone Warehouse, to step down as president of the Royal Museums Greenwich after ministers blocked the reappointment of one of its directors.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden described the government’s position to “conserve and explain” the statues and the disputed works in a letter to independent bodies in September, adding a warning against “activism or politics”.
Dowden, who has the strong backing of Downing Street, is convinced that these public bodies, largely dependent on taxpayer funding, would benefit from an influx of diverse new talent that better reflects the views of the country.
To date, the Ministry of Culture has taken a more aggressive approach by limiting directors to one term and, breaking with past practice, requiring candidates to pledge to support the government’s “contested heritage” policy. “. The guidelines for directors, released in March, also urge them to “consider the broader mission and duties of your sponsoring secretary of state.”
A Dowden ally said it was “quite normal to expect administrators and the institutions for which they are responsible to adhere to established and agreed upon government policy,” adding: “As temporary stewards of our heritage, administrators should work to preserve our heritage and use it to explain all aspects of our history.
Some presidents and directors have accepted Dowden’s more prescriptive approach to appointments, with several new appointees pledging their support.
But others fear that opinion control could undermine the very objective of giving arts councils some independence from government in sensitive decisions about collections. Several directors have considered stepping down over what they see as a purge of criticism, including government officials who scoured the candidates’ social media posts for evidence of disloyalty.
One administrator of a large national collection described it as a “total scandal”, saying it forced board members “to make judgments based on government policy rather than looking at the evidence they had”. Another prominent administrator said he was “very uncomfortable” about the approach.
The Science Museum Group includes the Science Museum in London, the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester and the National Railway Museum in York – places that, before the pandemic, attracted nearly 5 million visitors a year.
Archer, the scientist who has chaired the group since 2015, described Dry as “a valued and conscientious trustee,” adding: “She has made a particularly important contribution to the work of our collections and research committee, and I regret that she decided not to run for a second term.
The culture department said: “There is no automatic presumption of renewal, and indeed, in the vast majority of cases, new talent is added with new appointments.” The guidelines for directors of public bodies make it clear “that they must act to achieve the results expected by sponsoring ministries, ministers and, ultimately, the public,” he added.