The Falsity of Museum Neutrality

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Code of Ethics launch by the Museum Association, 2016 (Museums + Heritage Advisor)

In a recent speech, Dr David Fleming, President of the Museum Association, discussed the ethics of museum funding and partnering. He recognised the ethical responsibility of museums in making such decisions – and decried the falsity of the claim that museums are neutral.

“I have to say, I often despair at the frequency with which museum professionals state that we are somehow ‘above’ politics and we occupy a Neverland where we all deal in an absolute truth. This is either naiveté of the first order or it is far more sinister than that.”

Dr Fleming gave two examples of decisions made by his own institution, the National Museums Liverpool (NML) where he is director. It was important, he said, for staff to “stifle any personal view” – though, he recognised that they will unavoidably play some part.

A political party with “a whiff of racism” successfully hired a conference space from NML. Dr Fleming argued that, as the political party did not reject democracy and the deal could be done on a purely business footing, with no association with NML – it should not be spurned.

On the other hand, the hiring of an exhibition from another museum that was funded and named after a company involved with a military railway in a conflict zone was aborted. NML found “an appropriate route that did not compromise our reputation”.

In both decisions, Dr Fleming admits that, however much he and his colleagues tried, personal views necessarily affected the outcomes. “Pretending to be neutral is unethical; pretending that the museum has no bias and contains nothing other than scholarly expositions is unethical.”

The Museum Association’s Code of Ethics for Museums rejects the idea that museums should be neutral. If personal views of staff should be “stifled” the institutional code of ethics should be positively upheld. The Code of Ethics requires museums to support issues such as free speech, non-discrimination, public engagement, public benefit, accuracy and, in relation to funding and partnering, editorial integrity.

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For a museum to resist influence and promote “editorial integrity” it must have positive institutional ethical values and must certainly not be neutral. Without editorial or intellectual independence, it fails its public service duty. Specifically, it can no longer “(e)nsure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the work of the museum.” (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.7). Nor can it fulfil its duty of providing and generating accurate information (Code of Ethics for Museums, 1.4).

Not only must museums have Ethics Committees advising their decision-makers, as the NML has, but, also, a clear statement of ethical values. Most museums endorse the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics but, I believe that more institution specific statements are required, addressing ethical issues in their subject matter.

Moreover, rather than estimating public perception and just worrying about their reputation – museums should directly involve the public in their decisions.

This way, ethical decisions of funding and partnering are not mainly decided in a murky mixture of personal staff views (and it’s not the cleaning or security staff’s views that usually creep into the decisions) and estimates about the public reaction – but, also, a clear and considered internal ethical assessment.

If the Science Museum accepts oil company, BP, as a sponsor can it remain editorially independent and uphold its ethical views? Or, what about when the Imperial War Museum accepts donations from the Ministry of Defence and arms manufacturers? Perhaps, it is possible, but we certainly cannot know unless we know what their ethical views are and how they make each particular decision.

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Loyalist Murder Weapon Found at IWM

VZ58 assault gun found at the Imperial War Museum (BBC)

VZ58 assault gun found at the Imperial War Museum (BBC)

A potentially important piece of evidence of British participation in loyalist paramilitary terrorism in Northern Ireland has been discovered in a display case in the Imperial War Museum London.

A BBC panorama show has revealed that a VZ58 automatic assault gun, until recently held on display by the Museum, has been identified by investigators as a weapon used in the loyalist paramilitary attack on a bookmakers in south Belfast. On 5th February 1992, two gunmen entered Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road and gunned down five civilians, including a fifteen year old who died from his injuries in hospital.

The unsolved killings have long been suspected as a case of collusion by state forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabularly (RUC) and British Army military intelligence, with the paramilitary force that claimed the killing, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), also known as the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Investigations by Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Stevens Inquiry III  had discovered that, in 1989, RUC Special Branch had received a 5mm Browning handgun from an agent who operated in the UDA, only to return it to the group, supposedly in a deactivated state. However, the gun was then used in two further attacks which killed six people, including the five innocent civilians in Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road.

The other murder weapon, the VZ58 Czech-made assault gun was allegedly destroyed by the RUC. However, Darragh McIntyre in his BBC Panorama show reveals that the gun has been on display in the Imperial War Museum in London. Officers from Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman have reportedly taken possession of the weapon for tests.

The gun could directly connect British intelligence to the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings, as well as the murders of two Catholic men in 1988 to which the gun is linked. British military intelligence are known to have hired a UDA operative, Brian Nelson, to travel to South Africa in 1985 to meet an arms dealer. Two years later, in December 1987, a shipment of weapons, including a large quantity of VZ58s, arrived at Belfast.

British sources say that the shipment slipped through the radar of their surveillance. Whilst some of the weapons were recovered by the RUC, the rearmament intensified loyalist attacks. According to The Guardian, in the six years before the shipment, loyalists had killed around 70 people. In the subsequent six years around 230 were killed.

The VZ58 assault gun found at IWM is also linked to the 1988 murders of Seamus Morris and Peter Dolan by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), as well as the attempted murder of Gerard Burns in March of that year. The UDA were in possession of the weapon when their members carried out the Bookmakers killings before the RUC supposedly destroyed it.

As in a number of other cases, it is suspected that not only was at least one of the murder weapons procured with direct British assistance but that a British agent was amongst the murderers. One of prime suspects in the Bookmakers killings was never arrested or publicly identified, despite being known to intelligence.

In 2012, relatives of the six victims of the 1994 loyalist attack in Loughinisland, County Down, brought legal action against the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) over collusion in the deaths. A VZ58 assault gun was used in the shootings and part of the families’ claim focuses on British involvement in arming the killers.

This year, families of more than 100 victims have brought a challenge to the chief constable of the PSNI in the courts. The High Court heard from a HET senior investigating officer that a draft report into collusion during the 1970s between state forces and loyalist paramilitary groups had been shelved without explanation.

The discovery of the gun at IWM could support such cases, as well as justify the re-opening of the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings case. The position of the victims’ families has also been strengthened by the legal victory last year that forced the handing over of intelligence files on informers by the PSNI to the Police Ombudsman.

Amnesty International have called for an independent investigation into a “policy where the police, army and MI5 worked with illegal paramilitary groups, resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of people.”

 

Are Tyrants Good for Britain?

See Update 1 below

If a logical argument produces outrageous results, the premises of the argument must be questioned. On face value, it seems logical for the British government to promote and sanction the sale of weapons and surveillance equipment to known human rights abusers. British arms manufacturers profit to the tune of millions of pounds and these companies return the favour to the British people by paying taxes and employing people. Naturally, this logic involves dismissing repressed populations as subhuman.

There is theory and then there are facts. The major arms and surveillance supplier, BAE Systems, has been consistently cutting British jobs for cheaper climes – over 9,000 in the last few years. Moreover, BAE Systems actually deprives the public of tax revenue in two major ways. The government pays the company subsidies – £4bn from public funds in 2009-10, equivalent to a £64 donation from every person in the UK. Secondly, like many corporations, BAE Systems has legal involvement in New Jersey to minimise tax payments on its billion pound revenues.

It is not, therefore, clear that the arms trade benefits public funds. However, defenders insist that the employment the sector provides in Britain, though a small percentage overall, is important nonetheless.

But selling known mass torturers, imprisoners and murderers military equipment whilst claiming to be a democratic force is outrageous. As the cross-party Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) stated in a recent critical report: “The government would do well to acknowledge that there is an inherent conflict between promoting arms exports to authoritarian regimes whilst strongly criticising their lack of human rights at the same time.”

The British government insists that it does not sanction the sale of military equipment “where we judge there is a clear risk that the proposed export might provoke or prolong regional or internal conflicts, or which might be used to facilitate internal repression.”

This begs the question as to what a tyrannical regime, such as Saudi Arabia, will do with the sniper rifles, assault rifles, hand grenades, water cannons, military jets and vehicles it buys from Britain. Human Rights Watch describes Saudi Arabia as having “responded with unflinching repression to demands by citizens for greater democracy in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring movements.” Demonstrations are currently banned and dissenters are being detained without charge and tortured.

The British government says that states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are slowly reforming human rights abuse for the better. Such claims exaggerate what are generally minor or, simply, cosmetic changes. Human Rights Watch reports that between 2007 and 2008, Saudi Arabia gave its judiciary some independence, gave women some improved rights, though they remain legally equivalent to minors and finally brought thousands of languishing detainees to trial in a new terrorist court. Yet, Human Rights describe these changes as “largely symbolic.”

Meanwhile, that same new terrorist court is being used to convict peaceful dissenters – merely talking to the BBC about the need for democracy, Human Rights Watch reports, was enough for one individual, Khalid al-Juhani, to be charged with “distorting the kingdom’s reputation.” Detainees continue to be tortured.

Bahrain is also undergoing reform, our government says, seeking to justify its close relationship with the dictatorship. The Guardian’s Louisa Loveluck describes Bahrain’s reforms as “hollow” as the state recently confirmed the convictions of 20 prominent dissidents. Saudi Arabia came to Bahrain’s aid in crushing the uprising of 2011.

Whilst the British government condemns the Syrian regime for its brutality against its people, they continue to approve the sale of weapons and spy equipment to an array of despots, including the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen. Fallen dictators, such as Muammar Gaddafi (Libya) and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) were regular buyers of British weapons. They were also regular torturers and abusers of their people.

The outrageousness of profiting from oppression is made all the clearer by the Syria conflict. To the fury of our government, Bashir al-Assad warned that any foreign intervening force into the country would face chemical weapons. The world condemned this. And, yet, in 2002 a British newspaper reported that Britain was secretly selling chemical agents to a number of countries, including Syria.

By immorally selling weapons and spy technology to tyrants, the British government is inciting the hatred of swathes of repressed victim populations. This hatred is being exploited by fundamentalist terror groups to recruit members to their cause. This belies the claim that supporting “stable” tyrannies like Saudi Arabia keeps us safe. 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudi Arabian.

The logic of arming tyrants comes down to profit, markets and strategic resources. Britain’s biggest weapons clients are Arabian and North African regimes. This, of course, is where the world’s greatest source of energy is – what the US State Department once described as “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the great material prizes in world history”. It is, apparently, in the interests of the British government to strengthen client dictatorships in order to continue to have control over this energy source.

But, the commercial logic of selling arms to torturers treats human suffering, death, war – and even terrorist attacks – as costs of the transaction. It makes some sense and it is outrageous. The premise of the logic must be wrong.

Update 1

An important point that I missed in this article is the simple fact that Britain itself is a human rights abuser, as exemplified grotesquely by the invasion and occupation of Iraq contrary to the international legal requirements of valid self-defence or UN security council resolution. It is, therefore, little surprise that Britain should enable human rights abuse by other states that subordinate their behaviour to British (and US) interests.

Britain should first stop committing direct human rights abuse itself – and stop enabling others to do so.

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/