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Is the ‘arm’s-length’ principle under threat in UK museums?

26 May 2021

This article is a preview of the June 2021 issue of Apollo, out on 29 May. Subscribe here

Until now, national museums in the UK have been allowed to operate independently of political pressure. But recent statements and actions by the government suggest that this may no longer be the case. Below former Secretary of State Chris Smith and historian Margot Finn consider the future of the ‘arm’s-length’ principle.

Chris Smith

The government has clearly decided that ‘culture war’ is its thing. It’s at it with universities, flagging up in the Queen’s Speech the imposition of a duty to promote free speech, with an enforcer appointed by itself. I’m all in favour of free speech, especially in universities – where education is surely enhanced by the expression and contest of ideas and opinions, examined and challenged as appropriate. But the last thing we need is the government deciding what free speech should be allowed and what should not. 

Just as worrying, though, is what appears to be a government-directed imposition of its version of ‘correctness’ on our national museums and galleries. This came to a head recently when it refused to reappoint Aminul Hoque, a distinguished academic at Goldsmiths, who had been on the board of the Royal Museums Greenwich since 2016. Because his work focused on issues of decolonisation, the government decided they didn’t want him as a trustee. His term of office was not renewed, and the chair of trustees resigned in protest at what the government had done. It seems as if any semblance of the arm’s-length principle, about the relationship between government and museums, has vanished. This is a tragedy.

There was a straw in the wind back in the autumn, when Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, wrote to museums saying they shouldn’t be exploring issues of ‘contested heritage’ with a critical eye. This was government trying to tell museums what they can and can’t do in displaying and interpreting their collections to the public. Until now, such a step would have been unthinkable.   

Our national museums and galleries are the great storehouses of our nation’s culture, history, science, and wisdom. They contain the things of beauty we have collected over the generations. They reflect our nation’s identity, in all its diversity, complexity and glory.  It’s vitally important that this diversity, complexity and glory are displayed and explained to the public in the best and most effective way. And the people who know best how to do that are the curators and directors of those museums. The last people to know how to do it are governments and politicians.

When I was Secretary of State, just over 20 years ago, I would not have dreamed of trying to tell museums what they could display and what they couldn’t, what they could say about it and what they couldn’t. Yes, I was prepared to lean hard on museum boards and directors when it came to securing the restoration of free admission for the public. That was a legitimate province of government policy. But where the content of what a museum was doing was concerned, that was up to them. That, in essence, is the arm’s-length principle at work. That principle is now under severe threat.   

It’s very clear that the government has decided there is political mileage to be made from a ‘war on woke’. I suspect this derives right from the top, and it’s driven by an assumption that there’s a vast mass of ordinary people who have one view of British history and culture and don’t like any other perspective. What a patronising approach. The British people are very much up for seeing a rich, varied, all-perspectives-are-important view of history and identity. And on the whole they don’t want government to tell them what to think and what to believe. Surely museums and galleries and the people who are the stewards of their collections are much better placed to offer a rounded picture; and the British people are themselves much better placed to make up their own minds in response.

Our curators and museum directors are knowledgeable, expert, wise, non-partisan, steeped in affection for the collections in their care. I’d trust them any day before trusting a government minister. And I say that as someone who’s been such a minister.   

It’s not a government’s job to create art, or to create interpretations of art. Most governments that have tried to do so – the Soviet era in Russia comes immediately to mind – have diminished the art and the country in the process. It’s a government’s job to establish a strong platform on which artists, collections, museums and galleries can thrive. And then to leave it up to them. That way, we all benefit.    

Chris Smith (The Rt Hon. Lord Smith of Finsbury) is Chair of the Art Fund. He was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from 1997–2001.

Margot Finn

How deleterious is the current UK government’s assault on the arm’s-length principle in museums? How long is a piece of string? On the one hand, it’s easy to exaggerate the impact of a few trustee appointments made by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), hand-picked to enforce a faddish government line on ‘contested heritage’. On the other, it’s unwise to downplay the chilling effect of this shift away from an already labile principle, particularly when this trend is set against the backdrop of the major structural challenges faced by museums in peri-pandemic Britain. These are exceptionally challenging times for our cultural organisations. They need the culture wars orchestrated by the Secretary of State for Culture about as much as soldiers on campaign need trench foot.

I’m a happy veteran of the 2010–15 coalition government’s arm’s-length approach to DCMS appointments to museum boards, having served as a trustee of the V&A in two successive terms from 2012–18. The interview for this public appointment, chaired by the philanthropist and Tory party donor Sir Paul Ruddock, like the ensuing board meetings under his leadership, was robust, free-ranging and non-partisan. And all the stronger for that.

In the past decade, our understanding of the damaging effects of groupthink on corporate decision-making and corporate profits has grown apace. While museums are not only or principally businesses, their bottom lines do count. For institutions in receipt of grant-in-aid, profit margins have necessarily become a matter of concern as Treasury funding has annually diminished. Reports from trustees and would-be trustees of implicit and explicit requirements to adhere to highly politicised interpretations of British history fly in the face of the diversity of thought and personnel that businesses increasingly associate with corporate success. New demands that trustees adhere to cultural groupthink are being made precisely at a time when the ability of museums to optimise decision-making – and to return to ‘profit’ – has acquired existential urgency.

Arm’s-length, of course, has never been a scrupulously observed principle. Adherence has varied over time, among institutions and between chairs and DCMS mandarins. Lacking proper statutory protection, its implementation has relied on good faith, on cross-party observance and on fair play.

Today, in the English museum sector, that mutual respect increasingly appears to be more honoured in the breach than the observance. (Devolution has to date spared Scotland and Wales these polemical indignities.) The recent resignation of Sir Charles Dunstone from the chair of the Royal Museums Greenwich, prompted by the government’s refusal to reappoint an allegedly ‘decolonising’ trustee, Aminul Hoque, demonstrates that the rejection of arm’s-length principles has moved beyond cross-party politics to intra-party contests. Dunstone is himself a Tory party donor. If this is a war on ‘woke’, it is a very weird war on woke.

The most pressing needs of the museum sector remain structural and financial. Can institutions made increasingly reliant on marketing their exhibitions and facilities survive and flourish in the context of Covid-19 and the climate emergency? The Treasury’s pandemic largesse is at best temporary. And, as the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities made clear earlier this year, structural deficits are not so much a blind spot as a supermassive black hole in current government thinking.

Keeping eyes on the prize matters. Securing museums’ finances is a priority. Maintaining freedom of thought and expression within the museum sector is vital at all levels. But trustees are cogs in much larger mechanisms, and overemphasising their significance is potentially counter-productive. Nor are museums hermetically sealed institutions that engage only with their trustees. We need to monitor and protest the erosion of arm’s-length governance of our cherished cultural institutions, but not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Meanwhile, for museums operating outside the DCMS envelope, there will likely be rich pickings among trustee prospects. Applicants with expertise in digital technologies and digital humanities or with cutting-edge knowledge of new research in material histories (including but not only histories of slavery, migration and empire), but who carry the ‘wrong’ cultural credentials for Mr Dowden, will be in abundant supply. One museum’s culture war may be another museum’s organisational opportunity.

Margot Finn was a trustee of the V&A from 2012–18. She is professor of modern British history at University College London and from 2016–20 was president of the Royal Historical Society.

This article is a preview of the June 2021 issue of Apollo, out on 29 May. Subscribe here