5 things the Design Museum should have done before hosting the arms industry

Today, a group of artists and organisations have sent an unprecedented public letter to the Design Museum in London, calling for their work be removed from ‘Hope to Nope’, the museum’s headline exhibition that showcases ‘how design has played a pivotal role in reacting to the major political moments of our times’.

The reason? Last Tuesday, while the museum hosted a panel discussion as part of the exhibition, it also hosted a private reception event for a major arms company and made special arrangements for its guests to have their own separate entrance to the museum.

The 30 artists and organisations have issued a one-week deadline for their objects to be returned, arguing that:

‘It is deeply hypocritical for the museum to display and celebrate the work of radical anti-corporate artists and activists, while quietly supporting and profiting from one of the most destructive and deadly industries in the world.’

But how could the museum have avoided the controversy it now faces?

Hope to Nope

1) The museum should have done its homework

Before signing a deal with a company, whether there is a high-profile sponsorship deal on the table or they just want to hire the building for a private event, museums are expected to do some basic research into the corporate in question. It’s not just a good idea – this ‘due diligence’ is something expected by many sector-wide bodies, such as the Museums Association and the Charities Commission.

If the Design Museum had looked into Leonardo, the arms company hosting its private event at the museum that night, it would have found out that the company is profiting from the bombing of Yemen. The bombing in Yemen has killed thousands directly, as well as destroying many schools and hospitals. Presumably this is at odds with the museum’s own ethos? If it overlooked impacts like these, can the museum really claim to have carried out any meaningful due diligence?

After criticism of Leonardo’s event at the museum initially emerged last week, the Design Museum told the online news site The Canary:

‘We take the response to Tuesday’s event seriously and we are reviewing our due diligence policy related to commercial and fundraising activities’

Finmecannica at DSEI

Wildcat helicopter being transported to DSEI arms fair in 2017

2) It should have checked whether an arms manufacturer really shares its values

The Design Museum claims to be ‘forward-looking’ and that one of its core values is to be ‘welcoming’ so that its visitors feel ‘it is a place for them’. But at that Tuesday evening reception event, the museums walls were covered with images of corporate branding, military hardware and weapons. Providing this kind of practical support to those that profit from conflict and repression is definitely not forward-looking. It sends a clear and public signal about whose voices are really valued within the institution.

Museums and galleries should also have ethical fundraising policies in place where they set out their values as well as clear ‘ethical red lines’ about who they will and won’t work with. But worryingly, when members of BP or not BP? attended the opening of Hope to Nope to see their anti-oil-sponsorship Shakespearean ruff on display, the museum’s Chair of Trustees Peter Mandelson admitted that the museum didn’t have an ethical fundraising policy in place and was unconcerned. At the time, they called on the museum to engage in the ethical sponsorship debate and update its policies – but received no response. If this is indeed the state of play, then the Design Museum is falling well below what is considered best practice in the museums sector.

3) The museum needed to weigh up the risk to its reputation

If the Design Museum had done its research on Leonardo, it could have taken steps to avoid the damage that is now being done to its reputation – and it didn’t need to look far. Back in 2012, Leonardo (then known as ‘Finmeccannica’) was a corporate partner at the National Gallery in London. The company had signed up to a three year deal with the gallery which would allow it, like at the Design Museum, to hold a series of private reception events to coincide with the Farnborough International air show and arms fair.


Campaign Against Arms Trade protest at the National Gallery

A letter published in March of that year was signed by many high-profile figures including Peter Kennard and Will Self and highlighted that:

‘By entering into [a deal with Finmeccannica], the gallery not only provides a gloss of legitimacy for a reprehensible trade; it is also providing very practical support for the arms industry.’

But the partnership was cut short following protests and widespread criticism, and the deal was dropped a year before it was due to end. And while it was claimed that Finmeccannica had walked away, it’s likely that both parties were looking for a face-saving way out of the deal.

From this example alone, it should have been clear to the Design Museum that the risk to its reputation of working with this major arms company was too great and it should have turned Leonardo away.

4) It should have been accountable to artists and stakeholders

Just a few months ago in March, the arms manufacturer BAE Systems was forced to drop its sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North (or was possibly asked to step away) after large numbers of artists threatened to pull out. The Design Museum should have been aware of this seismic shift, where a deal with an arms company was both announced and ended in little over a week because of the actions of participating artists.


BAE Systems pull out of sponsoring Great Exhibition of the North, where many events were planned to take place at the Sage, Gateshead

With Hope to Nope, the Design Museum has been able to present itself as the ‘forward-looking’ museum it claims to be, creatively displaying objects from the Occupy movement, Gezi Park and even groups such as BP or not BP? that protest inside museums in order to draw attention to their unethical oil sponsorship deals.

Publicly, the museum is keen to promote this progressive picture, but privately take the dirty money of the arms industry. Even though there were good curatorial intentions behind the exhibition, these revelations give the impression that the museum’s management was perhaps more interested in co-opting the objects and their stories rather than genuinely engaging in the issues they raised.

5) It should have noted that the ‘ethical red line’ has shifted

In recent years, the debate around ethical sponsorship has only been growing, and oil and arms sponsorship deals have been subjected to sustained scrutiny by artists and activists. In 2016, BP pulled out of sponsoring Tate after 26 years following a sustained campaign of high-profile artistic interventions and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade continues to put pressure on the Science Museum and London Transport Museum over their close ties to arms companies.

More recently, over 30 renowned actors and artists – including Mark Rylance and Emma Thompson – gave their backing to a crowd-funded alternative to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s BP-sponsored discount ticket scheme for 16-25 year olds. And just a few weeks ago, 46 respected climate scientists, researchers and others backed a formal complaint to the Science Museum calling on it to end its partnerships with three major oil and gas companies: BP, Shell and Statoil/Equinor.

Today, these artists haven’t made a demand to the Design Museum – they’ve issued an invitation. This is an opportunity for the Design Museum to reflect upon its values, update its policies and be part of the growing consensus that arms, oil and tobacco money doesn’t belong in our museums. If the museum rises to this challenge, perhaps these artists will be persuaded that it genuinely wants to meaningfully engage with a debate that isn’t going away.

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