The Imperial War Museum and Arms Dealers

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A poster made by a museum visitor during Peter Kennard’s workshop, 2016

The Imperial War Museum’s grant from the government is being cut. By 2014, it will be down by 21.4%, in real terms, according to IWM’s 2011-12 Annual Report. But does this mean that it should “sell out” to industries that would like access to the two million plus visitors that visit the various IWM branches annually?

Sadly, a certain amount of selling out by IWM has already occured. This year, the Museum accepted and publicly listed in their annual report (page 17), donations of £10,000 or more from BAE Systems and Boeing UK; both of these companies are profiting greatly by manufacturing and selling weapons and other military equipment across the world, with the active support of the British government. The government says that it will not licence arms exports where it might facilitate repression or regional conflicts. However, licences are approved to the most repressive regimes across the globe, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria and many others.

Moreover, I recently discovered that the Imperial War Museum hires out its historic building to a major networking dinner event for arms dealers and military buyers. The Annual Defence Dinner has been held at the Lambeth Road building since 2008. In 2012, the event was protested against by activists from the Campaign Against Arms Trade – but, otherwise, the event went unnoticed.

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I only learnt about the Annual Defence Dinner at the end of 2012, when I chanced across the CAAT blog. My initial reaction was outrage; IWM is a public museum, funded in part by the tax-payer, and it claims to be dedicated to recording and educating about the effects of war. A conflict of interests is created when a war museum partners with arms dealers. The Museum cannot be frank about the effects of war when it regularly takes money from people who directly profit from war.

Indignant, I wrote a letter to IWM’s Director-General, Diane Lees, complaining that the commercial deal was a violation of the Museum’s public duty and completely immoral. Lees defended the decision on the following grounds:

– The Annual Defence Dinner is a private hire event and not “hosted” by IWM.
– Private events provide necessary income for the Museum.
– The decision was made by following a criteria similar to that used when accepting sponsors.
– The event hire was approved because it involved the “broad defence sector”.

The only plausible argument is the one about income. Other museums, including the Natural History Museum, have defended their right to host arms dealers for money. Like the IWM, they say that they can’t really turn down good money – even though, as public insitutions, they owe a public duty.

This lack of institutional ethics is all the more inexcusable for IWM. Putting aside the extreme immorality, simply for a war museum to accept any money from arms dealers creates a conflict of interests situation. IWM exists to record and educate the public on British involvement in war since WW1 and the impact war and conflict has on people’s lives. Part of this remit must necessarily involve informing the public about the role of arms traders in war. Yet, IWM will find it nigh on impossible to do this without upsetting its sponsors from that industry. Therefore, the Museum is silenced on this most important aspects of warfare.

It is true that dependency on government grants also creates an inherent conflict of interests because the government deploys the military to war and, therefore, has an interest in minimising analysis of their decisions. Yet, taking money from arms traders is avoidable (currently, the Museum cannot function without government grant) and it exacerbates the lack of intellectual independence of the Museum from those carrying out war. The IWM grant from the government, at least, comes from the Department of Culture, rather than direct from the MOD.

There may be some justification if the dealings with arms dealers were limited and, perhaps, one off. However, the Annual Defence Dinner has been held at the Museum for five years, since 2008. Moreover, IWM has been accepting £10,000 or more donations from BAE Systems for a number of years. It may be taking money from other immoral/compromising sources – donations are not listed in the Annual Report if the donor requests anonymity or the donation is below £10,000.

Despite the budget cuts, this cannot be justified in IWM’s case. The Museum is not so financially desperate that they need sacrifice their public duty, reputation and ethics for arms trader money.

Though incomes were clearly down this financial year, IWM still received £21.96 million in grant from the government (£23.91 million last year). They considered it suitable to use their income to make “external grants” amounting to £3.36 million. They were able to pay their Director-General, Diane Lees, a salary of £125-130,000 per annum or £135-140,000 (there seems to be a discrepancy in the annual report). They were still also able to provide the unpaid Trustees with an annual total of £9,375 (£10,697 in 2010-11) for “travel and subsistence”. This amount was claimed by eight Trustees. It is not clear from the Annual Report which of the twenty-two Trustees they were – nor is it clear how the Board of Trustees, which meets only four times a year, with some Trustees in other committees, could reasonably charge the Museum this sum.

What is clear is that IWM, despite definite income cuts, is not desperate – and, is even demonstrating largesse, it seems, when it comes to Trustees and the Director-General. Moreover, it has the safety net of a fund balance of £184 million.

Clearly, generating commercial income is a necessary aspect of IWM but there is no justification for selling out to the arms trade. IWM should not be accepting donations or commercial deals from such harmful corporations. The first step that is required of the Museum is a rigorous Code of Ethics to apply to all significant decision-making processes. At the moment, there is no specific criteria for all the Museum’s commercial dealings. The criteria for accepting donations is vague, weak and in the hands of a Board of Trustees that is made up of a very narrow range of individuals with a predominance of military and corporate backgrounds.

Edit 1:

I have been assured in writing by Diane Lees, Director-General of IWM, that the Museum abides by the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics. Unfortunately, this Code barely mentions the ethics of funding. On contacting the Museum Association, they said… “(t)he MA is clear that the key thing is for museums to have a clear decision making mechanism for accepting money from any source. I have no doubt the museums you mentioned have considered all the issues involved and then resolved to accept the support. Ultimately, it is for them to decide what is right and appriopriate for their institution…”

Effectively, the Museum Association which aims to enhance the value of museums to society by, amongst other things, providing leadership, has nothing to say about the ethics of museum funding and commerce, except that there should be some transparency.

Further info:

Activists from CAAT report their attempts to disrupt and shame IWM and the attendees of the Annual Defence Dinner 2012: http://blog.caat.org.uk/2012/05/24/making-arms-dealers-tread-over-dead-bodies-at-the-imperial-war-museum/

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