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.
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.
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”.