The UK Government has been called on to respect free speech after culture secretary Oliver Dowden allegedly vetoed a board appointment at Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) because of the trustee’s work on decolonisation.
The Financial Times reported over the weekend that the government’s decision not to renew the term of Aminul Hoque, a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose work promotes decolonising the curriculum, had led to the resignation of the former chair of the RMG board, Charles Dunstone.
Dunstone, the founder of the mobile phone company Carphone Warehouse, stepped down in January but the circumstances behind his departure were not reported until now. The current chairman of RMG is retired Royal Navy admiral Mark Stanhope.
The news comes amid ongoing alarm that ministers are fanning the flames of a so-called “culture war” over contested heritage following the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol a year ago. Museum professionals have warned that this is having a chilling effect on work that critically examines the legacies of slavery and the British Empire.
The government has been accused of carrying out a “cultural cleansing” to ensure that the views of trustees at cultural institutions are in line with its policies.
Museums Journal understands that at least one other board member at a national museum has had their appointment blocked by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in recent weeks.
Museums Association (MA) director Sharon Heal said: “Museums need boards that reflect a diversity of views and trustees that represent our communities. It is concerning that when museums are striving to be more inclusive in terms of governance, workforce and audiences, it appears that some people are being deliberately excluded from boards because they don’t comply with certain opinions.
“Section 1.2 of the Code of Ethics for Museums clearly states that museums and those that work in and with them should: ‘Support free speech and freedom of expression. Respect the right of all to express different views within the museum unless illegal to do so or inconsistent with the purpose of the museum as an inclusive public space.’
“We would strongly urge the government to respect that principle and support diverse and inclusive boards.”
A government spokesperson said: “All reappointments are considered in line with the government code for public appointments. There is no automatic presumption of reappointment, and indeed in the vast majority of cases, fresh talent is added with new appointments made.”
The government is currently working with museum and heritage bodies to develop national guidance on its “retain and explain” policy for contested heritage. The MA has warned that such guidance risks breaching the arm's-length principle, saying “it is not for ministers to impose what constitutes a legitimate subject for investigation or what the outcome of that research might be”.
RMG oversees four sites in Greenwich, south London: the National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark, the Queen's House and the Royal Observatory.