Imperial War Museums’ Funding Cuts and Real Horrible Histories

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A suspected ‘Mau Mau’ fighter is taken away by a private of the 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry for interrogation. © IWM (MAU 864)


Imperial War Museums’ Funding Cuts and Real Horrible Histories:

The brainchild behind the Imperial War Museum, Sir Alfred Mond, said on its launch in June 1920: “The Museum was not conceived as a monument of military glory, but rather as a record of toil and sacrifice.” He included in this dedication, “the people of the Empire, as a record of their toil and sacrifice through these fateful years” of the First World War. And, yet, the new Museum’s Board of Trustees was filled with government appointees and a handful of representatives from colonial or dominion governments. The ‘people’, whether of the Empire or Britain, had no direct say in how their toil and sacrifice was depicted. Ninety-three years on, IWM now spans five branches and a remit of covering all conflict involving Britain and the Commonwealth since the First World War – but the challenge remains as to how the Museum accurately and openly records peoples’ experiences of conflict.

IWM’s ability to fulfil its role is coming under severe pressure from cuts to its annual public grant – its main source of income as a national museum. Whilst the government has done much to publicise its financial support for IWM London’s new First World War galleries, in preparation for next year’s WW1 national centenary events, what is barely mentioned, however, is the 21% cut to IWM’s real value total grant that is planned by 2014-15, compared to 2011-12.

Despite these cuts, David Cameron, wants IWM London to be, “a centrepiece of our commemorations for the Centenary of the First World War”, and to inspire new generations with the “incredible stories of courage, toil and sacrifice that have brought so many of us here over the past century.” Thus, IWM is clearly not only under increasing financial pressure but, also, real political pressure as to how to portray conflict.

The IWM has set its own independent agenda in its Annual Report 2011/12: “to be recognised as the world’s leading authority on conflict and its impact – focusing on Britain, its former Empire and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present… IWM should be a place where, regardless of knowledge or experience, our audiences can make sense of conflict, understand its causes, course and consequences and see how it affects human behaviour for good or for bad.”

To meet this vision IWM must have the editorial independence to examine the historical record critically. The Museum Associations’ , states that museums should “strive for editorial integrity and remain alert to the pressure that can be exerted by particular interest groups, including lenders and funders.” (Code 9.10). [Now, expressed more strongly in the updated Code of Ethics as: “Ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation. Resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders.” (Code, 1.2)]

IWM insists it has this independence – decision-makers are ‘neutral’ and funders have no influence over how they exhibit their subject matter. Yet, whether the Museum has enough of an accountable democratic senior management structure to be able to preserve editorial integrity itself is highly doubtful. The IWM Board of Trustees is highly unrepresentative of British society, appointed by Cabinet ministers with wealthy figures from the military and corporate sectors. Of the 22 trustees, only two are women – former corporate director and current journalist, Bronwen Maddox, and the lawyer and academic, Dame Judith Mayhew. In terms of political, social and professional backgrounds, the Board of Trustees has more in common with IWM’s state and corporate sponsors than the visitor to the Museums.

IWM’s choices of subject matter casts doubt upon its editorial integrity and independence. There is a distinct lack of critical analysis of British military activity, demonstrated by the lack of inclusion of the perspectives of the victims and dissidents of militarism. IWM London will re-open this year (29th July) with a new photography and art programme called ‘IWM Contemporary‘. This will be kicked off by Omer Fast’s video piece, ‘5,000 Feet is the Best,’ based around the experiences of a former US drone operator. Following this will be an exhibition of reportage and photographs taken by US and UK soldiers in Iraq 1991 – 2012 (Mike Moore and Lee Craker) and an exhibition on the “personal and environmental legacy of military structures” by the British photographer and film maker, Donovan Wylie. IWM London’s new family exhibiton will be Horrible Histories: Spies.

There will continue to be few spaces for the voices of the victims and dissenters of British military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the new IWM London. IWM North has featured an exhibition of powerful photographs by the Guardian’s Sean Smith that does depict some of the devastation of Iraq – but this exhibition is certainly in the minority across IWM’s five national branches.

Coverage of past British military activity tends to be similarly edited. A revealing example comes from an online collection of personal stories about “conflict, belonging and identity” put together a few years ago by IWM called “Through My Eyes.” The collection included three stories from ‘Kenya in Conflict’ – Britain’s merciless repression of the rebelling Kikuyu tribe, known as the Mau Mau uprising. The British government only recently paid a limited amount of compensation to the surviving victims. None of the three stories told in the Kenyan part of IWM’s exhibition were from the Kikuyu. Thus, the primary Kenyan victims of incredible British imperial brutality, including tens of thousands killed and virtually the entire 1.5 million Kikuyu detained, were not given the chance to tell their story.

Corporate Vested Interests

The British government is IWM’s most powerful interest group as provider of public funds and selector of most of the positions on the Board of Trustees. This dual influence by one interest group hampers the possibility editorial integrity, making reform of the Board essential. However, the government is at least elected by voters and its decisions are open to influence by the general public. The same cannot be said for private corporations who are filling the void left by growing cuts to IWM’s public funding.

The Museums major source of income has been the annual ‘grant in aid’ from the government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Last financial year, IWM received £21.96 million, down from £23.91 million in 2011. The cuts will continue; by 2014-15, the Museum expects its total grant to suffer a real reduction of 21.4%. The Museum will become predominantly privately funded, with 53% of its income planned to come from self-generated commercial activities.

These quiet cuts, behind the fanfare of the First World War Centenary, will ensure that IWM becomes ever more dependent on corporate sponsors, partners and donors, such as those from the arms trade, including BAE Systems and Boeing UK, who both feature in IWM’s 2011/12 Annual Report as donors of at least £10,000.

The arms industry, or ‘defence industry’, are, along with the Ministry of Defence (MOD), already deeply entwined with the Museum. The “Annual Defence Dinner”, a major networking event for arms manufacturers, MOD officials and foreign defence attachés has been held annually at IWM London for several years now. The most recent sponsor of the event, Chemring Group, is a supplier of explosive ingredients for US Hellfire drone rockets. And, the key speaker of their event is the government’s defence secretary – it was Philip Hammond MP in 2012 – demonstrating the interchangeable nature of the corporate defence industry and the Ministry of Defence. Recently, the MOD secured for IWM a Honda motorbike allegedly used by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. The motorbike will go on show in the Museum’s ‘War Story’ exhibition, which tells the modern service stories of British forces.

Editorial Integrity

If IWM had editorial independence and a critical scholarly approach it would use the WW1 centenary to examine the warring nations’ motives. It would also look at the evidence and arguments produced by those who say that it was a bloodbath occasioned by government and business leaders’ competing for wealth and power – a claim supported by the sharing of the colonial ‘spoils’ by the victors afterwards. It would certainly not engage in any ‘celebration’ of Britain’s role in what Harry Patch, the British WW1 veteran who outlived his peers, described as “legalised mass murder”, and instead would critically reflect on the war and its consequences.

A critical record of the ‘war to end war’ that cost millions of lives would recognise in it the germs of bloodshed to come – the real ‘horrible histories’ from Britain’s recent past. Not just WW2 but the more immediate repression against reviving independence movements that followed in Ireland, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, giving rise to horrors such as the ‘Amritsar massacre’ of hundreds of defenceless Indian protestors in 1919; or the 1920 ‘Bloody Sunday’ random shooting into the crowd at a Croke Park football game in Ireland; or the ‘Egyptian Revolt’ of 1919 in which 1,000 Egyptians were killed, more than 1,500 imprisoned and 50 Britons killed as Britain fought fiercely to maintain ownership of Egyptian resources and prevent independence.

We should know of the atrocities suffered by the British and their commonwealth mercenaries, as much as the atrocities committed and authorised by Britain. In this knowledge, we should see how imperial exploitation is a repression that is unsustainable and makes inevitable bouts of bloodshed and inhumanity – with the subjugated people enduring the bulk. Knowledge of the dynamics of imperialism will enable us to understand more clearly the arguments made today that British support for the US in the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and drone attacks follow the pattern.

The absent voices

The most important voices for our understanding of British imperial history are those that are kept quietest – the voices and stories of the victims and the dissidents. IWM London will re-open this year with exhibitions that largely exclude these voices. Highly suggestive from this is that the Museum is not, as it claims, editorially independent from its funders and trustees, nor a true authority on the course and effects of conflict. If cuts to its public funding are permitted to be enforced, this situation will only get worse.The onus is on us, the public, to support the Museum to assert its independence. We can do this by challenging the government’s damaging cuts to its public funding, upon which any hope of editorial integrity rests. At the same time, we must demand that the Museum justify its public funding by opening up to the voices of victims and dissidents of British military action.

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Chemring Group and IWM

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Chemring Group was the sponsor of the Annual Defence Dinner 2012, a major annual networking event for the arms trade held at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, on Wednesday 23rd May 2012. Chemring has sponsored this annual event at IWM in previous years – at least since 2010.

In the literature promoting the Annual Defence Dinner 2012, Chemring, depicts itself as a provider of products “predominantly (to) protect military people and platforms, providing insurance against a constantly changing threat.”

However, over half of Chemring’s revenues derive from munitions and pyrotechnics. Explosive material and technology, ammunition, grenades, tear gas and small arms are easily put to offensive use, both in aggressive application and threat, when sold and used without basic humane judgement or controls.

Chemring’s weapons continue to be marketed and sold to clients who carry out human rights abuses. Chemring attended the LAVEX 2009 arms fair in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. The corporations website identifies the Middle East as a destination for a number of its munition and weapon products. The Saudi Arabian regime is a significant market and Chemring is officially associated with Saudi Eraad Defense Systems, a Saudi Arabian company that provides “professional and discreet services as in-country support/marketing company.”

As reported by the Independent newspaper in December 2011, Chemring’s tear gas cannisters were put to use against Tahrir Square protesters by the Egyptian security forces in 2011. The effects on protesters, exacerbated, it has been suggested, by toxicity brought on by the age of the gas (some cannisters dated from 1995), inflicted convulsions, burning and asphyxiation on protesters.

Chemring, as well as the British government which licences such sales, cannot not be aware of the misery and abuse that their actions are enabling. For example, Saudi Arabia’s repression of its population is very well documented. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s own human rights report cites Saudi Arabia as a country “of concern” due to its human rights and civil liberties abuses. The FCO says that the number of executions are “alarming”. Women cannot vote or play sport. All public demonstrations are banned; those who have defied this with peaceful protest have found themselves charged, imprisoned and sometimes tortured.

The repression endured by the Saudi population is exemplified by the case of Mohammed Salama. Human Rights Watch report that he has been detained without charge or trial since April 2012 having been arrested for posting personal Twitter comments critical of certain interpretations of Islamic text. He remains in indefinite detention with other peaceful protesters and activists.

For Chemring to provide such regimes with weapons and technology is to implicate itself in the heinous daily crimes, ensuring that people live in a constant nightmare. The Imperial War Museum, as a public museum dedicated to recording the true effects of warfare, must take a humane stance and not itself become complicit by taking money or associating with such activity.

Yet, Chemring’s dealings with the Middle East are not its only stain. The company provides technology and explosives for United States UAVS or drones. Their Norwegian subsidiary, Chemring Nobel, provides explosive substances for Hellfire rockets fired from US drones.

The US’ covert drone attack campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia has claimed the lives of many innocent civilians. Whilst defenders assert drone attacks as being precise, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report hundreds of civilian deaths, including scores of children. The UN has condemned the lack of monitoring by the US and launched an investigation into this “collateral damage”.

Moreover, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that drone attacks have targeted rescuers and funeral goers. The claim of precise attack is undermined by such follow-up attacks when people gather to deal with the aftermath of an initial attack. Additionally, the US carry out what are known as “signature strikes”; whereby victims are identified for assassination not by specific intelligence about their identity but merely on the basis of their behaviour and activities.

The US administration has refused to release the precise legal justification for their actions. Until recently, they refused to confirm or deny the existence of the campaign. Now, they defend more generally on the basis that they are involved in a worldwide conflict against terrorists – there is not time for judicial involvement in this precise strategy. However, many independent legal experts refute this. The US is not at war with Yemen or Pakistan, it does not face imminent threat and therefore is violating international law by carrying out extra-judicial assassinations.

Beyond the legal arguments, the devastation on innocent people is far-reaching. The threat of drones hangs over these people on a constant basis, interfering with their daily lives; making them afraid to meet or travel. A joint study by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University, named, Living Under Drones, found high levels of trauma, including insomnia, nervous breakdown and severe anxiety amongst populations living under the threat. The study found that people avoid attending the funerals of victims or even providing assistance in the aftermath of an attack in fear of a follow-up strike.

Conclusion

There is a legitimate argument for a regulated and controlled arms trade. However, the status quo is a far cry from this. British weapons and technology are actively sold to some of the most brutal regimes and enable devastating human rights abuses, including by our own government and allies.

The global arms trade and its profiteers are, at least, amoral and wilfully blind about the misery being enabled. The Imperial War Museum must not be so callous. The Museum should not associate with arms manufacturers or traders and should cease to accept event hire contracts, such as the Annual Defence Dinner, sponsored and attended by such corporations as Chemring Group.

The Museum also receives donations from corporations whose human rights records are even worse than that of Chemring Group, such as BAE Systems. I urge the Trustees to be humane and cease to accept such blood money.

If basic morality is not sufficient reason to disassociate, the conflict of interests created by taking money from war profiteers must be. IWM cannot be intellectually free in its duty of recording the human consequences of war if it is financially reliant on war profiteers.

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/