One of us or one of them? A long view of George Osborne’s appointment as President of the British Museum

George Osborne, the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been appointed the new President of the British Museum by its Board of Trustees.
© Russell Hart / Alamy Live News

The appointment of George Osborne as chairman of the trustees of the British Museum is only the latest of many Thatcherite moves to overturn the principle of independence that protected public councils from political interference. His installation is as glaring as the appointment of Lord Armstrong, Thatcher’s former cabinet secretary, as chair of the board of trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1988. Famous for being “thrifty with the truth” during his testimony in the Spycatcher trial in Australia, and prominent as “one of us” of Thatcher, he was one of the principal agents of the dirtiest episode in the history of the museum.

Following a hostile and ignorant National Audit Office report on national museums, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee attacked museum directors with equivalent ignorance. They did not understand that one of the roles of the immense collections of the British Museum (BM) and the V&A was to serve as libraries of material culture. Hopping David Wilson of BM, deeply versed in museum culture and effective in public communication, gave at least as well as he got. But the new director of the V&A, Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, previously director of the National Art Library and inexperienced in curation, has been crushed by political thugs.

Robert Armstrong responded with a cache of bottlenecked reforms, hatched by an internal cabal of administrators and senior executives in conjunction with his former public service cronies. Oddly, curatorial expertise had to be separated from the care of the collections. The most scandalous result was the offer of layoffs to nine Conservatives, at least some of whom were seen as inflexible by management.

As an administrator, I only learned about these “layoffs” from colleagues who asked me “what’s going on at V&A?” ” I did not know. I was then president of the Association of Art Historians and felt that I had no choice but to resign. I did this from an isolation room at a hospital in Fife, where I was diagnosed with meningitis. Reporters seemed rather nervous about conducting in-person interviews. I wrote the whole sad story of the V&A “reforms” in Burlington magazine in May 1989.

This is the most dramatic in a series of incidents and changes resulting from the external control exercised over boards of directors. When I was a director of the National Galleries of Scotland, V&A and BM, I witnessed a dramatic decline in board independence and the ideal of public service. Already in the 1980s, corrupt practices of a now familiar type were becoming apparent, I saw directors failing to declare even the most obvious interests. One was responsible for a museum’s advertising program, while another, president of a museum’s commercial arm, signed contracts for his company to use the drawings owned by that museum.

The most pernicious but least publicly visible erosion has been the decision to make the finances of each museum dependent on the department’s (and minister’s) approval of the museum’s program, which must be submitted in great detail. The rule is that the 15 national museums must “agree with the DCMS on a set of priorities, objectives and performance measures which are set out in their management agreements. the sponsored museum or gallery will receive, the government’s priorities and expectations for how this money should be spent, and the performance indicators by which each will be assessed by the DCMS. The potential for control is obvious.

The other major erosion has been the constant change in the composition of boards of trustees, with fewer experts in museum funds and a surge in business and finance captains. Of the 20 current directors of BM, ten belong to the latter category, including a non-white and a woman. The range of opinions and expertise available to the board has shrunk considerably.

I remember a presentation to the board by an American fundraiser. He said a necessary starting point was for each director to donate £ 1million to “get things done”. Looking around, I polled a mix of public figures, diverse academics, and arts professionals … with just one who might be able to build the seed fund. BM’s current board, through contact nodes if not in person, is clearly closer to the American model than the boards I have served on.

In my 1989 essay, I advocated a major public inquiry to bring some logic to the funding and functioning of boards. I would not do it now, because the current government would see it as an opportunity to inflict more damage on what remains of the fragile independence of the councils.

• For more information, see The crisis at the V&A. A loss of balance: the boards of directors of national museums and galleries, Martin Kemp, Burlington magazine, Flight. 131, No.1034 (May 1989), pp. 355-357

• Martin Kemp is an art historian and professor emeritus of art history at the University of Oxford. He was administrator of the National Galleries of Scotland, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum

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