Brontë Society trustee restricted from entering museum following harassment complaint - Museums Association

Brontë Society trustee restricted from entering museum following harassment complaint

Anne Simpson requested information on the whereabouts of objects
Jonathan Knott
A trustee of the Brontë Society has had her access to the organisation’s museum restricted after her repeated requests for information about the whereabouts of objects in the collection were judged to constitute the harassment of a staff member.

Museums Journal understands that Anne Simpson, one of nine trustees on the society’s council, has been told by chair John Thirlwell that she is restricted from going anywhere where she might encounter the staff member who complained about her requests.

The restrictions will severely limit Simpson’s access to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, where the staff member works. Simpson has also been restricted from attending meetings of the heritage and legacy committee, which the staff member attends. Museums Journal understands that the decision to impose the restrictions was passed by a unanimous vote at a council meeting on 27 January, with Simpson abstaining.

Museums Journal understands that Simpson rejects all allegations of harassment.

In a statement, John Thirlwell, the chair of the Brontë Society said: “The Brontë Society has received a complaint of harassment from a member of a staff via our recognised trades union.

“An internal investigation has been conducted, with scrupulous attention to our relevant approved policies and in consultation with our legal advisors.

“The trustee named in the complaint has not been banned from the museum. However, until this process is complete, the trustee is restricted from being anywhere where s/he may come into contact with the staff member concerned. This restriction is in line with our approved policies.”

A spokeswoman for the Brontë Society said that the trustee was restricted from entering the museum on any days that the member of staff who had complained was likely to be there.

Museums Journal understands that the meeting followed an investigation by three other trustees regarding Simpson’s repeated requests to the staff member for information about the whereabouts of some objects in the society’s collection.

The investigators concluded that the requests amounted to a form of harassment. However, they added that they could not be certain of this because they did not have full information about the quantity and timing of the requests.

Museums Journal understands that Simpson was officially notified of the investigation in a letter from the Brontë Society’s executive director Kitty Wright on 20 November 2017. In mid-January, Simpson submitted a formal response to the society’s council, where she stated that no phone conversations had taken place between her and the staff member, and that the only personal contact between the two had been at committee or council meetings, with other trustees present.

The Brontë Society did not comment on whether the alleged harassment consisted of any contact aside from emails, its frequency, and over what period it took place. In response to questions from Museums Journal, John Thirlwell made a statement saying:

“This is a confidential matter and we have a duty to protect the identity of the member of staff who brought the complaint of harassment and who was ultimately judged to have been harassed, following an internal investigation in line with our policies and procedures and in consultation with our legal advisors. Therefore, we cannot comment on the details of the harassment charges. We can confirm, however, that the complaint was upheld.

"It was agreed at a recent board meeting that the trustee involved should be restricted from being anywhere where the staff member was likely to be carrying out their professional duties. The vote was carried unanimously, apart from one abstention by the trustee the restriction applied to. As the staff member involved is required to attend meetings of the heritage and legacy committee, the same trustee was also asked to stand down from that committee and agreed to do so. She is not restricted from attending board meetings.

"Having completed the investigation into the complaint and upheld it, the trustees are now in the phase of exploring remedies for the situation that has arisen, and while this is ongoing we cannot provide any further comment.”

This development is the latest in a string of recent upheavals at the society. In 2015, the writer Bonnie Greer resigned as president after disagreements over the organisation’s future direction. And the previous year the society’s chair Christine Went resigned a month into her role, ahead of an extraordinary general meeting that had been forced by members amid allegations about the council’s conduct.

The most recent controversy arose last month when the actor and model Lily Cole was appointed as a creative partner, prompting author Nick Holland to write on his website: “I can no longer continue to be a member of the Brontë Society whose leaders’ views are so opposed to my own”.

Museums Journal understands that in the past three years, four Brontë Society trustees have resigned, along with one adviser to the council.

The Brontë Society is in the midst of a five-year programme celebrating the bicentenaries of the births of four of the Brontë family. It received almost 80,000 visitors in 2016 and is set to receive £930,000 from Arts Council England between 2018 and 2022 as a National Portfolio Organisation.

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