The Natural History Museum has apologised for hosting a gala dinner last month for the National Conservatism conference, saying it had been “shocked and horrified to see hateful rhetoric being expressed” at the event.
National Conservatism is a pro-nationalist political project launched by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a US thinktank. The initiative has been criticised for platforming extreme views and policies on immigration and race, climate change and LGBTQ+ rights.
Over three days, the conference featured talks by a number of senior UK politicians and commentators, including remarks by the historian David Starkey that anti-racist groups such as Black Lives Matter were engaged in the “symbolic destruction of white culture”, and were jealous of the “moral primacy of the Holocaust” and determined to replace it with slavery.
There was particular controversy over remarks made at the gala by the conservative intellectual Douglas Murray, who was accused of downplaying the Holocaust after commenting that he didn’t “see why no one should be allowed to love their country because the Germans mucked up twice in a century”.
National Conservatism promoted Murray’s comments in a tweet featuring an image of the museum’s blue whale skeleton, Hope.
In a statement on its blog, the Natural History Museum said: “Had we anticipated some of the rhetoric that was expressed at the event, we would not have permitted it to be held on our site. We should have anticipated this, but because of a genuine mistake our usual processes were not followed, and we take full responsibility for this.”
It said it was taking immediate action to “fix the mistakes” that led to the booking and was consulting with staff on the best way to use the proceeds of the venue hire.
The NHM added: “It was particularly painful to see an image of Hope the Whale used to illustrate a tweet alongside rhetoric that minimised the horrors of the Holocaust. We didn’t call out and reject these posts as we should have done when they were first published and gathering attention. We want to apologise and unreservedly reject any association of these messages with the museum.
“We want to make clear that we utterly abhor the statements made and we are sorry they were shared with imagery of the museum. None of our colleagues attended this event (which was hosted by a third party who hired the space), but we didn’t make this sufficiently clear in our response.”
The statement continued: “We know we have a lot more to do to make the museum a welcoming space for all and that new and growing partnerships require trust which can easily be eroded. Engaging and involving the widest audience possible is central to our mission: we apologise for our mistake, for the association of these views with the museum, and commit to doing better.”
There have been calls in the museum sector for greater clarity around the legal and ethical issues raised by the incident. The Museums Association's Code of Ethics asks museums to “seek support from organisations whose ethical values are consistent with those of the museum [and] exercise due diligence in understanding the ethical standards of commercial partners with a view to maintaining public trust and integrity in all museum activities”.
However recent legal cases have shown that caution is required in this area; venues that refuse or cancel an otherwise publicly available service on the basis of a client's philosophical or religious beliefs could find themselves in legal hot water if those views are classed as protected.
Last year, Glasgow City Council was ordered to pay £97,000 to the US Christian preacher Franklin Graham after cancelling his booking at the Hydro concert venue, citing concern over the views that may have been expressed at the event. A judge ruled that the venue had breached the Equality Act by not letting Graham perform.