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.

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.