World view

Working abroad can be lucrative for British museums, but how are they tackling the ethical issues that this can raise? Sara Wajid reports
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Sara Wajid
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In 2006, Bury Metropolitan Borough Council was known as the local authority that sold a Lowry painting to plug a budget deficit and then resigned from the Museums Association after being threatened with expulsion for breaching its ethical code.

In 2013, the town in Greater Manchester was again in the news, but this time for a more positive story about monetising its cultural assets – Bury Art Museum manager Tony Trehy had developed an exhibition of artworks that went on tour to China, which earned enough for him to call the international market “a significant new source of funding”.

Richard Parry, the head of the Experience Economy Team at UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), says museums are starting to make the transition from cultural organisations to businesses.

“Larger museums are assessing how they can monetise their expertise and collections overseas,” he says.

A potential global market for British museum content and services is emerging just as public funds are shrinking. What entrepreneurial museum director worth their salt wouldn’t be interested?

Parry sees the Gulf as the biggest potential client because of its combination of big cultural ambitions, relative inexperience in the field and deep pockets (Abu Dhabi has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world).

Indeed, the British Museum won a major consultancy contract for an undisclosed amount for the development of Zayed National Museum (ZNM) in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District of Abu Dhabi.

Parry says the “jury is still out” on the commercial opportunities in China, but UKTI is watching keenly as new Chinese museums open at a rate of more than one every week.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, will be making its own contribution to those staggering figures as a partner in the Shekou Design Museum (led by China Merchants Group).

Ethics conflict

International mega-museums designed by “starchitects” make great headlines but the Gulf and China are also synonymous with restrictive religious practices, human rights abuses and state censorship.

Censorship and limited freedom of speech are particular hindrances for the development of any kind of effective cultural organisation.

So, as UK museums work with a greater number of foreign institutions, they are faced with a question: should they rigidly uphold their own practices and values or be more flexible and risk ethical compromise and reputational damage to the very brands that are so highly-regarded around the world?

Is it realistic for western professionals to maintain a commitment to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues and women’s rights when working for staunchly conservative Muslim societies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)?

And how should conservators, curators and learning professionals ensure that they are passing on their world-class expertise without falling into Eurocentric habits or perpetuating a 21st-century cultural imperialism?

Jane Weeks, a British Council specialist in international museum development, says soft diplomacy is the best approach to bridging cultural barriers and supporting positive change.

Weeks favours cautious long-term interventions by western museums. She points to the example of the photography show about North Korea mounted this summer in the British Council’s London headquarters, which depicts the lives of everyday people behind the abstract geopolitical entity of newspaper headlines. She hopes it will begin to open a conversation.

However, David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool (NML) and president of the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM), goes further. He argues that British museums should proactively defend human rights in their international work.

“It is very easy to shut your eyes to human rights abuses if you’re busy looking for something else,” Fleming says. “Each international collaboration requires careful thought from a human rights perspective and that’s what we try to do at NML.”

This approach informed NML’s choice to work with a museum of international democracy in Argentina. “We like the fact that they are brave enough to confront the denial of human rights in a country that was ruled by a military dictatorship in living memory,” Fleming says.

While this policy makes sense for a human rights museum, is it the responsibility of a fine art gallery, for example, to challenge the cultural norms of its “clients”, ask difficult questions about the conditions of migrant workers on building projects or act as the museum world’s policeman?

Fleming says: “If we’re talking about a very basic human right like the freedom of speech, I’d like to think that publicly funded institutions in western democracies, who are going to have a dialogue with museums in countries that don’t have a good record, would show that they are very aware of the human rights dimension.”

Last December the European Council held a meeting to discuss growing concerns about migrant workers’ rights in UAE and Qatar.

As a result, the chair of the European parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, said migrant workers, including those on Saadiyat Island, were exploited “on a daily basis” and called on all companies involved in the Saadiyat project, including the British Museum, “to ensure that any form of mistreatment is addressed and that all migrants can fully enjoy their human rights”.

British artist Guy Mannes-Abbott of Gulf Labour (a group of artists protesting the treatment of migrant workers on Saadiyat) was reported in the Guardian as saying: “The British Museum’s role has so far escaped notice, but it should consider gifting or returning items that it will be stuffing the Sheikh Zayed National Museum with on lucrative loan agreements.”

Learning curve

According to a British Museum spokeswoman, the museum is concerned about human rights everywhere in the world. “The museum will continue to review issues regarding workers’ rights and human rights with both Tourism Culture Authority Abu Dhabi and Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) at our regular meetings and as the project enters the construction phase,” the museum says.

The spokeswoman added that British Museum staff visited the Saadiyat Accommodation Village last November and welcomed the recent publication of a second, independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers that acknowledges that continuous improvements have been made and that ongoing efforts were being made to ensure workers were protected.

John Orna-Ornstein, the director of museums at Arts Council England and vice-chair of the International Council of Museums UK Executive Committee, notes an increasing emphasis in UK national museums’ approaches to international work on more commercial and transactional partnerships.

He supports museums diversifying their income streams, but underlines the need for balance and the value of other types of innovative international collaborations.

Orna-Ornstein adds that one of the great benefits of international working is the learning in both directions.

“Because of the strength of what we have here in this country, we have not had to look internationally in the way that some other countries have because we’re so confident in our own collections and ways of working,” Orna-Ornstein says. “Maybe we haven’t pushed quite hard enough to explore what others are doing and have been a bit too insular as a sector.”

He adds that organisations in Brazil such as Modern Art Rio use different models. “Modern Art Rio is very aligned with the city and with social engagement,” Orna-Ornstein says.

“It was in a position to turn down what for most organisations would be compelling offers of major exhibitions by high profile international artists, because it had decided they simply weren’t a fit with what it was trying to achieve.”

Richard Parry says that a good by-product of the work big museums are doing in international markets is the learning curve.

“Lessons are always being learnt about cultural sensitivities and foreign governments,” he says. “It’s very important to go in with your eyes and ears open and not be seduced by the apparent pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

The model of regional museums

Others are not so positive: when the French government was first negotiating the phenomenally lucrative Louvre Abu Dhabi contract, 4,650 museum experts signed a petition protesting that France was cynically selling off its national legacy.

Even if exhibitions are flawlessly presented, museum staff are faced with another problem: are they designed for the local community or well-heeled tourists?

Jane Weeks of the British Council says that when the director of the Sharjah Museum of Archaeology came to learn about audience development, he asked for a month at the British Museum but instead, he was also placed at the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums for two weeks, as 90% of its audience comes from within a 10-mile radius, whereas 80% of the Sharjah Museum of Archaeology’s audience are overseas tourists or temporary residents.

Weeks says that non-nationals and regional museums can often be more useful audience development models for non-western museums because of their scale and relationships with local audiences.

Hard cash and bridge-building on the one hand; censorship, workers’ rights and the risk of bad press on the other: how to balance them?

“Ethical frameworks have to keep up with change,” David Fleming says. “I don’t believe Socrates came up with an ethics for the 21st century. The UK’s Museums Association code of ethics is very influential, so if it focuses on international behaviour, it’ll get picked up more widely.”

If British museum directors do rise to the challenge, it’s possible their success will itself become part of the expertise other museums covet.  

Sara Wajid is the acting head of public engagement at Royal Museums Greenwich. She is the Museums Association’s regional representative for London. Additional research by Sam Wajid


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