BY ​Ahdaf Soueif in Opinion | 20 MAR 20
Featured in
Issue 209

Why Our Museums Need Ethical Leadership

Former British Museum trustee Ahdaf Soueif asks: who our museums for?

BY ​Ahdaf Soueif in Opinion | 20 MAR 20

BP or Not BP?, Performance 22, 2015, performance documentation, British Museum, London. Courtesy: BP or Not BP?/Getty Image; photograph: Niklas Hallen'n/AFP 

Every museum is singular and specific, an organic network of staff, audiences, collaborators, patrons and researchers who orbit around a collection. But while an institution’s collection may determine the scope of its exhibitions and responsibilities, it cannot be its sole raison d’être. Museums need to address how their collections relate to people’s lives – both now and in the future. So, perhaps every couple of years, a museum could circulate a questionnaire amongst its network, asking: ‘What is this institution for?’ And: ‘How are we achieving this purpose?’ 

The definition that’s held since 2007 is that ‘a museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment’. I only really noticed how anodyne this was when a new definition was proposed at the International Council of Museums (ICOM) meeting in September 2019: ‘Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.’ 

Mike Nelson, The Asset Strippers, 2019, installation view, Tate Britain, London. Courtesy: the artist, Matt's Gallery, London, neugerriemchneider, Berlin, Galleria Franco Noero, Turin, and 303 Gallery, New York; photograph: © Tate/Matt Greenwood

The vote for the new definition was postponed (following an outcry from some quarters) and so, for the moment, the old one stands. Yet, it is significant that an alternative was even articulated. This is completely consonant with the spirit I felt in the room when I attended the Museums Association Conference in October 2019 in Brighton. And it also speaks to the supportive responses I received when I resigned last July from the British Museum’s board of trustees, after seven years in the role. My decision to depart was shaped by my belief that there’s an ethos that should hold for all museums: one that defines their role as social agents. Calls for restitution, the need to divest from oil sponsorship and the protection of workers’ rights are not separate from a museum’s programming – they reflect an ethical position that, for a public institution, should be unambiguous.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to examine the challenges that museums face. And a central challenge comes down to money and patronage. Museums are – rightly – determined to keep their entry free. Mostly, in the UK, they are funded from the public purse, which means that they have to please – or, at least, not displease – the government. The bigger and more important they are, the more leeway they are normally granted. Stellar British Museum exhibitions such as ‘Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East’ (2006), ‘Shah Abbas: The Remaking of Iran’ (2009) and ‘Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World’ (2011), for example, worked in brilliant counterpoint to the government’s hostilities in the Middle East.

Ideally, public money would cover museum costs. But, as we know, this is not the case and museums have to appeal to patrons. But patrons have their own motives: some noble and altruistic, others more self-serving. The liveliest and most creative protests against ethically questionable funding today, as I see it, come from climate activists who are keen to push arts institutions to drop money from oil giants. And, while it seems the sensible course for a museum to cut its (not life-changing) BP or Shell sponsorship, many remain reluctant to do so. Why? Because there is a world of money and business to which BP and Shell belong – a world from which most museum patrons (and even board members) come.

Should museums, then, cut their cloth to suit their purse? Would they lose their ‘star’ status if, for example, they cut back on blockbuster exhibitions? At the moment, from the little I can see, it seems that cost-cutting exercises are mostly eyeing museum staff at all levels – an injustice that won’t even set the accounting books right. And yet, there is a generation of curators, researchers and culture-sector workers who need museums to be clear ethical leaders in society: to refuse to greenwash businesses that are harming the future, to employ staff with decent wages and benefits, to engage honestly and imaginatively with issues of decolonization. We need to work out how to make that happen. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 209 with the headline ‘What Am I For?’.

Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian-British novelist and political and cultural commentator.