A restructure of the National Army Museum (NAM) in London earlier this year has left some staff concerned about the working culture and future direction of the institution.
Undertaken in response to Covid, the restructure, which closed in January, resulted in 13 members of staff (11.3 FTE roles) being made redundant, 14% of the museum’s total workforce. Seven of those staff worked on the commercial team, three in visitor experience and marketing, and three in collections. The cuts saved the museum £154,000 in 2020/21.
Concerns about the process were raised to the museum in a letter sent by union negotiations officer John Stevenson last year, which has been shown to Museums Journal.
In the letter, Stevenson refers to the results of a staff survey undertaken after union members at the museum approached him with their concerns. Some of the comments in the survey described a situation that was “frankly disturbing and not what would be expected in a modern and progressive workplace”, wrote Stevenson.
The letter continued: “The concerns of the members are various but they can be summarised as a lack of consideration of professionalism and understanding of the core role of the museum as a public institution ensuring the preservation of history and exhibitions. They are particularly concerned with the re-organisation that is currently taking place and the impact this is having on their working lives and their ability to undertake their roles.”
Several people with knowledge of the situation have spoken to Museums Journal further about these concerns. They have asked to remain anonymous in order to be able to speak freely.
According to one source, the redundancy process caused “lots of extra stress that could have been prevented”. Some staff feel they were not adequately consulted during the process about the impact that redundancies would have on teams, and faced long periods of uncertainty about their job security.
In his letter, Stevenson wrote that the museum “seems to have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, whereby if you do not like it you can go elsewhere and your job will be off-shored to India”, adding that “this is not the expected behaviour of a progressive and forward thinking employer”.
The museum strongly rejected these claims. Speaking to Museums Journal, director Justin Maciejewski said it was “not the case” that the process had been mismanaged. He said: “The process was fair, legal and well executed in compliance with employment law. Wherever possible colleagues were offered new opportunities. Extensive consultation with staff and union representatives was at the heart of the process.
“We brought the trade union into the process early on and we worked with the union throughout the process and their advice was invaluable. There were a number of extensions to the consultation period and trial periods for some people due to the difficulties caused by lockdown and its impact on isolation and colleagues’ wellbeing. On occasions the process was paused to give staff more time to consider and shape the new roles that were offered. The museum has provided those leaving access to a comprehensive outplacement package and the majority of those leaving have found other roles outside the museum.”
He added: “The welfare of colleagues has been at the heart of the difficult restructuring process throughout.”
Sources also felt that Covid had been used “as an excuse” to push through a radical restructure that had first been proposed the previous year. Maciejewski said this claim was “totally untrue”. He said: “The requirement for restructuring was first discussed at the council meeting in October 2020 as the second wave of the pandemic approached and it was clear that another year of uncertainty lay ahead. The desire to introduce more agile ways of team working was discussed before the pandemic but this is not linked to the restructuring in any way.”
Concerns were also raised to Museums Journal about the general working environment at the NAM. In his letter, Stevenson wrote: “Members have highlighted a bullying environment within the workplace, which is a cause of particular concern. No-one should in any way feel intimidated for any reason.”
Neither the letter nor the sources who spoke to Museums Journal accused any individual member of staff of wrongdoing.
Maciejewski said: “We have a whistleblowing policy and a grievance procedure in place and no issues have been raised through these since my appointment in 2018. Instilling a culture of inclusion, mutual respect between departments and creativity has always been a top priority and, of its nature, is a work in progress. We have just completed a significant and active four-month all-staff training and change management programme on effective, creative and inclusive team working.”
There is particular concern over a discussion that took place during a staff meeting in September 2020 about the “lack of diversity among the museum staff, particularly the imbalance between female (80%) and male (20%) members of staff” and the need to “address this in the longer term”. The discussion was recorded in the minutes of the meeting.
One source told us: “There has been no understanding that the female staff find this statement offensive. Most museums attract many more applications from women than men. This is not the real diversity issue for museums.”
Maciejewski said: “There was a discussion about why there were not more suitable male applicants for some roles. It was acknowledged that this was a museum sector wide issue.”
He added: “As you would expect and in common with the museum sector, the board keep gender diversity under review and how best to achieve this. However, there is no intention to positively discriminate in favour of male candidates based on gender. Of the people hired by the director and the senior leadership team to positions at the NAM over the last three years 75% have been women and 25% have been men. All applicants in the selection and recruitment process are assessed equally, and solely on their qualifications, relevant knowledge, experience and personal qualities for the role, in line with NAM’s recruitment and associated policies.”
More women than men were made redundant during the restructure, with 11 female and two male workers let go; a union spokesman told Museums Journal that this ratio reflected the overall gender balance of the workforce.
Museums Journal understands that some staff are also unhappy about the interpretive direction of the museum. One source said there had been a move towards the “sanitisation and disneyfication” of British Army history within the museum. Another pointed to concern about its “outdated approach” to colonialism, particularly in the context of wider debate in the sector about the representation of empire and contested history.
Maciejewski said it was “totally untrue” that the museum has moved towards a sanitised interpretation of history. He said: “The gallery refreshment programme will include an introduction to the origins, organisation, values, soldiers and purpose of the army. The story told in the new Formation gallery has been tested with our external academic advisory panel and is rich, accessible, objective, diverse and unsanitised.
“There is also a wide-ranging public programme that tackles difficult and complex chapters in the history of the army including controversial episodes such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 and the uprising of 1857 in India.”
He added: “We are passionate about the genuine diversity at the heart of the story of our army and its ability to build bridges and connect people of different races, faiths, cultures and perspectives. The history of the army is diverse and to tell it accurately diversity has to be fully embraced and we are proud to do just that.”
Maciejewski pointed to extensive work undertaken by the NAM to celebrate the diversity of the army, including a new exhibition telling the 300-year story of West Indian soldiers and the active acquisition of material that relates to soldiers from Africa, the Indian Sub-Continent and the Caribbean.
He said: “The stories we tell represent all the men and women being called upon to do extraordinary, dangerous and courageous things as part of their service. It is a history that includes triumphs and failures, whether it is leaders at famous battles that shaped world events, or ordinary people from all over the world and from many cultures otherwise forgotten by history. The stories of these soldiers and their diversity all have a place in the museum and its collection and we are proud to tell them.”