Trustee quits SMG board over ‘retain and explain’ pledge - Museums Association

Trustee quits SMG board over ‘retain and explain’ pledge

Growing unease over government interference in museum boards
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
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The SMG oversees five sites, including the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester
The SMG oversees five sites, including the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester Science Museum Group

A Science Museum Group (SMG) trustee chose not to seek a second term after being asked to declare support for the government’s position on contested heritage.

Science author and historian Sarah Dry withdrew from reappointment to the board in March, telling chairman Mary Archer that she would not seek a second term as a result of new guidance from the UK Government asking incoming and reappointed trustees to “individually and explicitly express their support” for its retain and explain policy.

The policy seeks to prevent cultural institutions and councils from moving or removing contentious heritage assets in the public realm.

 “Any requirement which seeks to constrain the independent curatorial and interpretive work of national museums violates the long-established principle of arm’s length bodies,” Dry said in a letter obtained by Museums Journal. “Today it is contested heritage. Tomorrow it may be another issue.”

Dry said the requirement undermines several of the principles that public office holders are expected to uphold, including integrity and objectivity. Allowing the government to dictate specific policies “betray[s] the trust of the public we are designated to serve”, she said, warning that it risked damaging the SMG’s reputation as a source of trustworthy information.

“It also seriously limits our credibility internationally as representatives of the democratic values of transparency, independence and freedom,” she said.

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The news follows reports that Royal Museums Greenwich chair Charles Dunstone resigned after the government blocked the reappointment of a trustee at the institution.

Dry told Museums Journal: “I made my decision with regret as I am extremely committed to the mission of all the museums in the Science Museum Group.

“However, I knew that I could no longer be an effective trustee if I signed up to support the government’s policy on contested heritage.”

There is growing unease in the museum sector over what is seen as an attempt to purge boards of individuals whose views do not align with those of the government. Concerns have also been raised about interference in public bodies in other industries.

Museums Journal understands that the requirement to express support for “retain and explain” is viewed by some in the sector as a loyalty test intended to flush out people with dissenting views.

In a statement to the Financial Times, Archer described Dry as a “valued and conscientious trustee” and said she was sorry she had decided not to seek a second term.

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A Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spokesman 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.”

Guidance for trustees on public bodies states they should “act to deliver the outcomes expected by sponsor departments, ministers, and ultimately, the public”.

Comments (5)

  1. Peter Mason says:

    This is very worrying and I hope that the MA can find a way for every member to express their concern and fight for the continued independence of every museum, even those that are government sponsored.

    1. Martin Sach says:

      On the question of independence, independent museums should indeed be free from government interference. However bodies that receive public funds have to be accountable. We cannot expect them to be both independent and unaccountable at the same time. If you want the cash you must expect to account for how you use it and that means some loss of independence.

  2. Martin Sach says:

    She made the right decision. Anyone who does not believe in retention of heritage should not be on the board of a museum. We cannot change the past or right what are now seen as the wrongs of the past (but were not seen as wrongs at the time) and we should never be so arrogant as to judge the actions of people in the past by the standards and morality of the present day. As for the “explain” part of “retain and explain”, hopefully that’s what all museums try to do all the time, so how can she be against that?

  3. Ruth Garde says:

    “what are now seen as the wrongs of the past”? Slavery (amongst other barbaric practices) was in fact seen as wrong at the time. If you aren’t aware of that, then you probably need to read more history.

  4. Martin Sach says:

    It is certainly true that in the era of slavery a small number of opponents gradually grew to a large number over time. We didn’t have opinion polls in the 18th century as far as I know but I strongly suspect that most people in the UK saw nothing wrong with slavery in that period. We should not look at the past through a lens of present-day morals and values.

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