This is a website all about the Imperial War Museums, a national collection of museums in England consisting of IWM London, IWM North (Manchester), IWM Duxford (Cambridgeshire), Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast (both London). It is also about the wider museum and heritage sector, with particular focus on issues of editorial integrity & independence, ethical funding and fair recognition of the role of minority groups.
The aim of this site is to encourage the Imperial War Museums and the rest of the heritage sector to be editorially independent from big funders and partners, inclusive in appealing to the full diversity of the local community and wider population, participatory in its interactions with visitors and the local community and critical in its analysis of history.
The idea for the site came from my indignation in late 2012 when I found out that the Imperial War Museum allowed its building to be hired for the “Annual Defence Dinner“. I was alerted to this by a die-in protest organised by CAAT that disrupted the event. This is a major annual networking annual for arms manufacturers and military buyers. I was outraged because I considered it a clear conflict of interests for a museum “dedicated to recording people’s experiences of modern conflict, exploring the causes of war” and displaying collections which “reflect the total nature of war.”
Editorial Integrity & Public Trust
Since activists from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) interrupted the £210-300 a ticket Defence Dinner, back in 2012, its organisers have become more secretive. It is not thought to have returned to IWM in recent years – though other events have hosted representatives of arms dealers at the Museums, which consists of five national branches.
This website has since evolved to examine the Imperial War Museums more broadly but still with a focus on the ethics of its funding and commercial partnering. Unlike other museums, such National Museums Liverpool (NML), IWM does not have an Ethics Committee to advise its trustees and directors on the ethics of funding and partnering choices. It does, however, endorse the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics for Museums.
The Code of Ethics requires the Museum to uphold “editorial integrity” and “public trust”:
The weapons makers, BAE Systems and Boeing UK are listed in IWM’s Annual Reports as as annual donors to the Museum of £10,000 or more. This is a troubling situation. These payments need scrutiny and the Museum must do more to show that it is living up to its obligations, as required by the Code of Ethics for Museums.
To protect public trust and integrity, the museum should not only be obliged to make public its significant donors – but, it should also explain how it resists influence from BAE and Boeing, who give so much and so regularly.
Drastic cuts in the government grant-in-aid have lead to a major internal re-structuring – behind the fanfare of redevelopment of galleries. Visitor services and security has been privatised and the Lambeth Road Library was under threat, along with the services provided by the educational drop-in centre, Explore History and the Research Room. Whilst they remain for now, their long-term existence is not guaranteed.
Close ties with arms dealers and contractors risks a financial dependency being created which compromises editorial integrity and public trust. Having taken this money, can the Museum then show an exhibition that questions the global arms trade? Can the Museum critique Britain’s modern wars – given that BAE Systems and Boeing Defence UK are both influential suppliers of the military?
Recent temporary art exhibitions have critiqued such matters and Britain’s role in recent and on-going warfare – the question is whether such critical analysis will continue to be as rigorous and challenging as public funding recedes and private funding grows – and whether it will reach the most visited permanent exhibitions, such as the WW2 galleries.
Need for reform
So, from becoming het up about the Annual Defence Dinner, I’m now seeking to discuss the Imperial War Museum structure, independence and intellectual honesty. Reform is needed so that the Board of Trustees is open to a wider range of people, rather than the narrow elite, appointed by the Prime Minister. A more representative and independent IWM will be a more interesting and informative one for our society.
Perhaps, IWM can never be truly independent whilst it relies on the government for funding – let alone corporations and powerful individuals. However, IWM needs to fight for greater independence despite these connections. A start would be to reject money from the arms trade – unless IWM can actively prove that it retains full editorial integrity, independence and public trust.
Changes at IWM
The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London, is undergoing a major redevelopment. The first phase was for the national centenary commemorations for the outbreak of World War 1, in 2014. The :Lambeth Road, London branch of the museum was closed for the first half of 2013 as building work takes place. It fully re-opened in the summer of 2014.
The next phase of re-development is in process, with new WW2 galleries and a new Holocaust Learning Centre planned.
Behind the fanfare of redevelopment, certain services are being hollowed to make way for funding cuts. Although the Explore History educational area and the Research Room have survived, they continue with reduced services. Moreover, a transfer of archive material to IWM Duxford, outside Cambridge, is underway, to make space for the next phase of re-development.
It is possible that the IWM is performing its cutting back of Explore History and the Research Room obliquely – by depriving them of direct access to IWM’s valuable archive material.
IWM is a partially public funded museum. Prime Minister David Cameron announced his government’s commitment of a further £5 million to support the redevelopment. This is our money and, therefore, our museum. We should, if we care about the contribution of museum’s to our society, follow the changes closely.
This major redevelopment had some worried. As Seamus Milne wrote in the Guardian, there is a risk that politicians will seek to use the WW1 commemoration to boost their own popularity and policies.
Unrepresentative Board of Trustees
But, on the flip-side, the Transforming IWM project, is an opportunity for positive change. It can be a time when more than ever before, the public get involved in the museum. Fundamental changes are desperately needed. It is quite well-known that the current Director-General, Diane Lees, is the first woman to hold the post. Yet, what is less known is the elitist and militaristic nature of the 22 person Board of Trustees, who are Lee’s
Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC
Lord Black of Brentwood
Professor Sir Miles Irving DSc FRCS
Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas DBE
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach KCB CBE BA MPhil DTech DLitt FRAeS ADC RAF
Sir John Scarlett KCMG OBE
Professor Hew Strachan PhD FRSE
Jonathan Watkins Esq
Admiral the Lord West of Spithead GCB DSC
Nick Williams Esq
His Excellency John Dauth LVO (Australian High Commissioner)
His Excellency Gordon Campbell (Canadian High Commissioner)
His Excellency Dr Jaimini Bhagwati (Indian High Commissioner)
His Excellency Rob Taylor (Acting High Commissioner, New Zealand)
His Excellency Wajid Shamsul Hasan (Pakistani High Commissioner)
His Excellency Dr Zola Skweyiya (South African High Commissioner)
His Excellency Dr Chris Nonis (Sri Lankan High Commissioner)
That’s two women (Bronwen Maddox and Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas). The list is a highly elite one drawing people mainly from the worlds of aristocracy, military and corporations. Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas is a lawyer/academic who has held roles with the world’s largest law firm, Clifford Chance, one of the world’s largest investment banks, Merrill Lynch, as well as the City of London Corporation.
It is clear that this narrow and undemocratic Board of Trustees needs to change if the Imperial War Museum is truly to serve the public at large. That is not to presume that these Trustees necessarily have bad intentions. Some of their decisions have been impressive – such as the decision, I feel, to display Jeremy Deller’s exhibit, ‘It Is What It Is’, a few years back, encouraging visitors to think about the effects of the Iraq invasion.
However, narrow and elite control is unlikely to serve our society at large. After all, the concerns of aristocrats and, for example, the former Director General of MI6 (Sir John Scarlett), or Ministry of Defence officials (Tom McKane) are very different from the average person’s concerns. There is also the danger that the museum will airbrush the painful truths about British actions in the past and present because an overwhelming number of the Trustees have strong connections to governing organisations.
Basically, the Imperial War Museum needs change and it is up to us to decide whether we want to try and influence changes and how we shall do this. It is my personal desire to contribute in my small way to this change that has made me start this blog. Hopefully, it will encourage you to think about what you want from the Imperial War Museum and our other many national museums.
Comments are warmly welcomed.
Friend of IWM