A woke at the wheel of wonderful museums

If the country’s great collections are to be saved from the illogic of left-wing groupthink, we must find a new type of thinker

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Activists from the campaign group BP Or Not BP protest, dressed as BP executives, in the Asssyrian galleries of the British Museum (©Dinendra Haria/Alamy Live News)

Dominic Cummings’s attempt to bring about cognitive diversity in Whitehall is causing a mixture of amusement and angst. But he should really have a go at our cultural sector, where the  Italian neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony is alive and well. Liberal-minded lefty people, attitudes and ways of thinking have come to dominate our museums, galleries and other institutions.

This liberal-leftist mindset’s influence used to be mainly benign. Ensuring that the arts establishment reaches beyond the well-heeled locals of South Kensington is a good thing. So is encouraging exhibition and gallery programming to tap into the creative resources of a wider range of culture and communities, rather than the familiar and traditional. So too is nurturing regional and minority arts organisations.

Yet even then it involved a faddish playing to modern sensibilities, notably on jargon: replacing “he” and “she” with “they” or fretting about whether BME is better or worse than “Black and Minority Ethnic” (no, me neither). But lately this mild wokism has been injected with steroids. Worse, the resultant aggressive and truculent approach not only distorts the direction of our great museums, galleries and other arts institutions but threatens their very existence.

Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian author, reached the Booker Prize shortlist in 1999 with her novel The Map of Love. But she came to my notice only when she resigned as a Trustee of the British Museum last year citing its acceptance of money from BP, its attitude to staff whose jobs were outsourced to Carillion and its silence over the restitution of African artworks, following a recent recommendation by President Emmanuel Macron to do so. The French leader, she said, had “burst open the debate over the repatriation of cultural artefacts. Museums, state officials, journalists and public intellectuals in various countries have stepped up to the discussion. The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice (my italics), is coming under scrutiny”.

‘This aggressive and truculent approach not only distorts the direction of our great museums, galleries and other arts institutions but threatens their very existence’

Workers at the British Museum, members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, immediately came out in support. So did others, from Dame Janet Suzman to Culture Unstained, a campaigning group seeking to end fossil-fuel sponsorship of cultural institutions. The issues raised by Soueif are important. But the muscular wokery that now exists within this sector is preventing reasoned discussion. Any dissent is seen as supping with the devil.

Take the first devil, BP. The British Museum is not alone here. The National Gallery was taken to task for taking money from Shell. The actor Mark Rylance theatrically quit the Royal Shakespeare Company over its links to BP. More recently, the British Museum has been subject to guerrilla-style protests against its current exhibition on Troy, sponsored by BP.

And while formal responses to these actions have been carefully worded (the National Portrait Gallery, for example, said “we are listening carefully to voices on all sides”), these outside agitators are influencing sympathetic insiders. Last year the RSC ended its arrangements with BP. The National Gallery deal with Shell quietly expired and, in early January, the Sunday Times reported that the British Museum is to “bypass” BP as a sponsor for its forthcoming summer blockbuster exhibition Arctic: culture and climate. Instead, the lead sponsor will be Citigroup.

But wait, what is this? It takes less than five minutes to look up Citigroup’s latest Annual Report and find that “Citi Retail Services also renewed its nearly two decades partnership with Shell, launching a new Shell Fuel Rewards credit card”. Not to labour the point, but: “We introduced the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card . . . turning everyday spending into exciting travel experiences.” So why is Citigroup OK, but BP or Shell not? Simples. Because what matters here is the signal, not the substance.   

There is no objection, for example, to taking money from the millions who drive cars, take trains or fly off to holiday destinations. This group probably includes 99.99 per cent of anyone who has ever thought about giving money to an arts organisation. It seems consumption of fossil fuels is not an issue, it is only production that merits opprobrium. The personal is no longer the political. The personal now seems to be confined to protests and disruptions by everyone from Extinction Rebellion to activist theatre groups and teachers absconding from their day jobs. 

At the National Portrait Gallery protests, a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion called on arts organisations to sever ties with companies “funding extinction”. And that is the thing: any disagreement is called out as supporting “extinction” or, more generally, earns that offensive tag, “climate change deniers”. But there are perfectly good and sound reasons for engaging with BP and other fossil fuel producers. Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, someone who knows a thing or two about climate change, said demonising fossil fuel producers is unproductive. These are the companies with the “capital, geography and people” needed to find solutions to climate change.

Others have argued it is surely better that money from oil companies goes to subsidising exhibitions and museums than into the pockets of shareholders. The presence of the very rich and philanthropic on the boards of many cultural institutions has traditionally brought a welcome reality check to the question of who pays: there is an understanding that arts institutions cannot just rely on state funding and need private money to be able to deliver their aspirations and ambitions. It helps keep our museums free and our ticket charges as low as possible. Without sponsorship, only the rich could afford to go to see these amazing exhibitions. For our militant leftists, this is just a rather tiresome and vulgar issue when they are wrestling with matters of high principle.

The reality is that government funding for UK arts organisations has been cut by nearly a third since 2010 and it is not going to go up anytime soon. The search for other sources of money takes up a lot of time and energy. If money that is legal, such as that from banks, city billionaires and corporation profits, is seen as “bad” money, the losers will be the very people the protestors are supposedly fighting for: the young and the poor.

This soon may not matter as there may be less and less to see. And that is because of another  wokist battle: restitution of works of art. These are objects that properly “belong” to other cultures and countries but have ended up in our great museums and galleries because of colonial looting and pillaging. This is another issue requiring careful consideration. But the forces of wokedom already know the answer. Under the slogan “decolonise the museum”, they should all be returned forthwith.

Last month’s Museum Journal has an article headlined “Momentum builds for repatriation among UK museums”. It reports that the Manchester Museum “held a ceremony to return 18 secret, sacred and/or ceremonial items to two First Nations communities in Australia”. Stephen Welsh, curator of Living Cultures at Manchester Museum, said: “It was an absolute privilege to have them explain to us the significance of the objects and what it meant to the communities in terms of reconciliation and healing.” 

Cambridge got in on the act by returning their Benin cockerel to Nigeria. But Jesus College is not a museum, and so the impact of such an action is muted. For museums, this could have very serious consequences indeed. In fact, museums are deeply committed to returning looted goods—and a good deal of resources go on establishing provenance and taking the correct action. The V&A and other museums have quite correctly returned much Nazi loot to their rightful owners. Since 2009, the British Museum has helped return 2,345 objects to Afghanistan, Iraq and Uzbekistan—mostly the result of illegal trafficking. But provenance and legality are difficult and complex. And we need to be careful what we wish for. Last year, the British Museum said that 4th-century Buddhist terracotta heads, probably hacked off by the Taliban, will be returned to Afghanistan where they will be star exhibits. But the Taliban may well be back, and we all know what happened to the Buddha statutes in the Bamiyan valley when the Taliban held power. Returning these artefacts could well prove a pyrrhic victory.

Tristram Hunt has voiced the case for the preservation of encyclopaedic museums like the V&A by quoting from James Cuno’s book Museums Matter: “Without [encyclopaedic museums], one risks a hardening of views about one’s own, particular culture as being pure, essential, and organic, something into which one is born . . . The collective, political risk of not having encyclopaedic museums . . . is that culture becomes fixed national culture.”

The long-term risk is clear. Our great museums, galleries and historic royal palaces would be left empty: the Rosetta Stone would leave the British Museum, the Koh-i-Noor would go back (where to? India, Pakistan and Afghanistan all have laid claim) and the V&A would be hollowed out. Not that Alice Procter, a University of London student, would be worried. She runs “uncomfortable art tours” of British museums, focusing on questions of disputed provenance. She dismisses “the whole concept of the Museum . . . [as] a colonialist, imperialist fantasy, born from the fallacy that somehow the whole world can be neatly catalogued, contained in a single building, mapped out for easy digestion”.

If such arguments win, our museums and other such institutions may no longer be the world-class glories of this country. Instead they will be devoid of content, beyond the most parochial, and visited by an ever shrinking and narrowly defined group of the well off—the very antithesis of inclusivity. 

There are genuine arguments for and against sponsorship by big corporations (fossil fuel producers or otherwise) just as there are real issues about cultural restitution. Once, we were able to discuss these matters in an open-minded way. Today, liberal-leftist thinking has hardened into a bellicose wokism and silenced opposition. A few of Cummings’s weirdos and misfits could be just the ticket.