The price of money

Andrew Smith, 05.07.2017
Why museums should not take money from unethical sources
Last July the Science Museum in London became the target of protests, with the site playing host to the official welcome reception for Farnborough International arms fair.

Over 100 campaigners surrounded the entrances, trying to block the arms dealers that were descending on the museum. Those that managed to get past the crowds will have spent their nights rubbing shoulders with civil servants, politicians and representatives from some of the world’s most repressive regimes.

It was the second time the Science Museum had held such an event, and unfortunately it is far from the only UK museum to have hosted arms dealers. The Tower of London, the Imperial War Museum and Edinburgh Castle are among those that have done the same.

The issue is about more than hosting events. Sponsorship agreements, such as the one between the London Transport Museum and Thales, which has sold arms to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan, are also a vital part of the arms trade’s quest for respectability and normalisation.

Arms companies aren’t keen to work with world-class museums because they want to be nice or to support education. They do it because it is good for their reputation and good for their business. Museums offer respected public platforms and a veneer of legitimacy to an industry that fuels conflict around the world.

Hosting or accepting sponsorship from a company is not a morally neutral act. Endorsements work both ways, and reflect on both parties. This point is recognised by the Public and Commercial Sector Union, which represents 5,000 public gallery and museum workers across the UK. In 2015 its conference backed a motion to condemn arms company sponsorship of the cultural sector.

When campaigners engage with the public and the museums it can have a positive impact. For example, following a vocal and active campaign, and a lot of public pressure, the National Gallery ended its long-standing sponsorship arrangement with arms company Finmeccanica.

Our campaigning may focus on institutions that host the arms trade, but similar campaigns have been run by environmental campaign groups, such as Liberate Tate, which successfully mobilised activists against BP’s sponsorship of the Tate galleries.

Ultimately, the reason that so many people care about museum sponsorship is because we care about museums. They are places for education, learning and building lifelong memories. I still remember how awe-inspiring it was when I first visited the National Museum of Scotland as a child. They are part of the fabric and the future of our society.

The reason for demanding better is not because campaigners don’t understand the difficulties and financial pressures that are facing the sector. Rather it is because we recognise the crucially important role that museums play in the UK and beyond.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). CAAT tweets at @CAATuk


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09.07.2017, 12:58
There is a difference between sponsorship and room hire. The former certainly involves some kind of relationship and depending on the agreement, influence of the sponsor on the sponsored, which can cause a lot of problems for the museum's reputation.

If the Science Museum is hiring out its spaces for conferences and receptions on a commercial basis then whether it hires them out to arms dealers, charities and campaign groups or even the Association of Seraphim and Cherubim is irrelevant,as long as the gathering is not doing anything illegal then it is just a matter of taking the cash, holding their nose (on occasion) and putting the money to better use afterwards. The real issue is when the commercial demands start to take precedence over the real mission of a museum.
06.07.2017, 10:28
An interesting article. Personally I'm not pro museums accepting sponsorship from unethical companies but in some cases I think it is less inappropriate than others.

Military museums and science or technology museums are already going to be displaying products made by these companies which make and supply arms and will have numerous examples held behind the scenes in their collections. A relationship with the people who make these items has the potential to benefit the collection by allowing acquisition of objects and stories, providing content for future exhibitions. Given that there will therefore be an association with an arms company in the Museum in the first place, why shouldn't the museum also accept money from the company? After all Museum's can't play their crucially important roles in society without the financial support to do it.

I suppose I'm taking a pragmatic approach rather than an idealist approach, if only Museums didn't have to take this line as well.