The Design Museum has accused artists of stifling free speech. Here’s why it’s wrong.

Last week, almost 40 artists, designers and activists with objects on display in the Design Museum’s ‘Hope to Nope’ exhibition signed a letter calling for it to remove their work from display. The reason? The previous week, while the museum hosted a panel discussion on protest, it allowed a private event for a major arms company to take place next to the exhibition.

The controversy has now raised a whole range of ethical questions and the museum has been in dialogue with the artists, seeking to find a way forward. But today, the Design Museum published an outspoken public letter on its website which is almost entirely dismissive of the artists’ concerns as well as making several unsubstantiated claims about their motivations and the museum’s ability to act. Fundamentally, the letter dodges the central questions the artists had raised about the legitimacy it lent to an unethical and destructive industry.

This blog was updated on the 6th August to include this film of the artists removing their work from the exhibition on Thursday 2nd August. Film: BP or not BP?/Nope To Arms.

Is it too political to say where you stand?

At the outset of its letter, the Design Museum’s directors claim that, ‘As an educational charity, we cannot take an overt political stance’. Of course, registered charities – which many of our respected museums and galleries are – have to be careful not to involve themselves in overt kinds of political influence. Recent revelations around the Institute of Economic Affairs and its offers of “cash-for-access” to government ministers has made this all too clear.

But there’s a huge difference between the capital ‘P’ politics of backing political parties and the small ‘p’ politics that all of us have, those values that shape our everyday decision-making. And setting out those values in a fundraising policy is actually something the Charities Commission and Institute of Fundraising (IOF) encourages organisations to do. The IOF specifically says that an ethical fundraising policy should ‘define the parameters of associations across all types of corporate and partnership activity’, something that would logically include both private hires and sponsorship deals.

So, the Design Museum could – and should – set out its values clearly in its ethical fundraising policy, and without fear of being seen as ‘overtly political’. And crucially, it should make that policy publicly available so that its stakeholders, visitors and the wider public can hold it to account.

And when the Design Museum directors subsequently claim that its policies are ‘in line with those of all other major cultural institutions around the world’, it suggests that they are only prepared to do the bare minimum that is expected when it comes to fundraising ethically. Instead, they should take this opportunity to think again and position the Design Museum as an example of best practice within the wider cultural sector.

Hope to Nope

But can the museum refuse to work with certain companies?

While the Design Museum has said it would rule out any hires with arms, fossil fuel or tobacco companies while it undertakes a review of its policies, it has continued to resist calls from the artists to draw a much stronger ethical line that would recognise the seriousness of lending legitimacy to the arms industry. In their original letter, the artists with work displayed in Hope to Nope called on the museum to also include sponsorship deals, not just event hires, in their revised ethical stance and to make that stance into something concrete.

This wouldn’t be a particularly bold or radical step for the museum to take. The National Audit Office has said that setting out a list of companies or sectors that are automatically classed as ‘High Risk’ is actually an example of best practice when it comes to fundraising, and the IOF says that an effective ethical fundraising policy should set out ‘whether there are any prohibited forms of donations or donor relationships’.

And far from arguing that it would be ‘overtly political’ for a museum to draw an ethical red line when it comes to certain kinds of donors and partners, the Charities Commission specifically says a fundraising policy should ‘identify when accepting donations may not be in the interests of the charity’. Given the damage that has now been done to the Design Museum’s reputation, agreeing a private hire with the world’s ninth largest arms company has certainly not been in the best interests of this charity.

Adopting an ethically consistent, values-based position as a cultural institution is not ‘overtly political’ and not in conflict with limits on political activity. Many museums and galleries already do this. Tate and Edinburgh International Festival ended partnerships with BP following widespread criticism from both artists and activists, and around 100 arts organisations and 400 artists have committed to not take money from the fossil fuel industry for their work. They have not faced repercussions for being public about their ethical stance. In the face of a growing climate crisis, this has been seen not as a political position but as a move towards being ethically consistent. Similarly, the National Gallery and Natural History Museum have had partnerships with arms companies come to an end following ethical scrutiny, and other museums and galleries have specifically set out that the arms industry is a sector they would not partner with.

Alternatively, some museums take an issues-based approach, establishing specific research questions or ethical criteria centred around human rights or climate change for assesing potential donors or hire agreements. And setting out arms, fossil fuels and tobacco as proscribed industries isn’t a radical position. While there are undoubtedly ethical questions about all kinds of corporate partner, the evidence base around these industries is clear, well-documented and convincing. But crucially, these are industries that have repeatedly been linked to the spread of misinformation about the impacts of their activities or sought to dodge reasonable scrutiny of their business practices. Museums are trusted cultural institutions and they shouldn’t compromise or put a price on that trust.


Shouldn’t the artists leave their work on display so the message is seen by more people?

Artists make work to be seen, shared and engaged with. So, the decision to remove their work from an exhibition or withdraw from a project is not a decision that will ever be taken lightly. And for grassroots artists and activists, it is unlikely they will have sought much, if any, financial incentive for lending their work. They will likely have been motivated by a desire to support the exhibition’s curators in what is a bold and distinctive project.

But the Design Museum is now claiming that, ‘Professional activists whose work didn’t feature in the exhibition took the view that the museum had acted wrongfully’ and have worked to ‘exploit the situation.’ And in its letter today, the museum cast itself as a victim by arguing that it will not be the ‘surrogate for the real targets of these campaigners’.

If the museum was confident in its current ethical position, it would have sought to defend its stance. But instead, rather than engage with the seriousness of the artists’ concerns, the Design Museum has attempted to deflect attention by dismissing this group of nearly 40 artists, designers and activists by suggesting they are not exercising their own agency and ethical judgment, but are acting merely out the wishes of others.

The group includes renowned artists and designers such as Milton Glaser, Shepard Fairey and Jonathan Barnbrook, whose iconic artworks and images are on display alongside objects from some of the most well-known and respected arts activists. Rather than mitigate the damage already done to its reputation, the Design Museum seems intent on making it worse. When the Science Museum recently received a formal complaint from around 40 respected scientists over its ties to the fossil fuel industry, it adopted the same strategy, attempting to dismiss them as ‘campaigners’ rather than engaging with them as well-informed stakeholders with legitimate concerns. It’s a concerning trend.

Artists are often expected to lend or offer their work for free, or to be grateful for any opportunity to have their work displayed. The ability to state how they would like their work to be displayed, or to decide that they would prefer it was not made into the backdrop to arms deals, are some of the few ways they are able to exercise their agency as artists.

When the Design Museum’s directors today wrote that, ‘The outcome of these protests will be to censor the exhibition, curtail free speech and prevent the museum from showcasing a plurality of views’, they let their mask slip. Many of the objects in Hope to Nope are not historical artefacts but living pieces of ongoing struggles for freedom of expression and social justice. The act of placing such objects into an exhibition does not allow the museum to disregard the struggles and stories that brought them into being.

To accuse artists and activists who actively fight for inclusion and to give a platform to marginalized voices of promoting censorship is absurd – it is a statement that will only do further damage to the museum’s relationships with its stakeholders. However, if the artists now go ahead as planned and remove their objects from the exhibition it will be a testament to the curators’ vision and ambition, that they had brought together objects that can and will continue to play an active role in the struggle for social justice.

But the Design Museum doesn’t endorse the arms industry.

No, the Design Museum didn’t publicly endorse the arms industry. But then the arms industry is one much more suited to closed-door meetings and shady deals. After all, most museumgoers aren’t in the business of buying missiles and teargas.

What the Design Museum did provide though was the physical setting in which relationships could be shored up and new deals struck. And it’s often events like these where policy makers and politicians are invited along for conversations over wine and canapes. At the British Museum, BP’s staff have regularly enjoyed similar meetings with government ministers and ambassadors at drinks receptions and exhibition openings. When museums allow these events to go ahead – fully aware of these companies’ agendas – they become an active part in business plans which they know will result in the sale of more arms or drilling for more fossil fuels.

It’s curious – and perhaps ill-advised – that the Design Museum has chosen to make explicit reference to the controversy surrounding the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and the concerns over its charitable status. What the Design Museum chose to provide to the arms company Leonardo was a high-profile setting where you might expect the same kind of shady meetings, deal-making and opportunities for influence to take place. After all, it is unlikely that a room full of arms dealers are simply going to drink wine and discuss the weather.

While the Design Museum – unlike the IEA – does not orchestrate that kind of activity, it knowingly provided a setting that would give those interactions a legitimacy they didn’t deserve. Next to the work of world-class designers and iconic protest posters, it’s possible to discuss the finer points of missiles in terms of their engineering finesse rather than as the tools for violently destroying lives and violating human rights. So no, the Design Museum may not have endorsed the arms industry in the conventional sense of publicly promoting its business. In this case, it might have provided something far worse.

Ultimately, a group of artists who offered their artwork to an exhibition at the Design Museum have called on it to make a reasonable and timely ethical shift. But instead, the museum has protested, played the victim and falsely claimed that acting ethically would be too political.

But when an arms company came to its door, offering money to host an event that would further its destructive business plans, the museum readily accepted. For the Design Museum though, this descision was not seen as a departure from its apparent “neutrality”.

It seems that when it comes to working with arms dealers and working with artists, some decisions at the Design Museum can be more neutral than others.