Natural History Museum event hire controversy raises ethical questions

Yesterday, activist, writer and Guardian columnist Owen Jones revealed on Twitter that the Natural History Museum in London would be hosting a private reception event for the Saudi Embassy later that evening. Given the widespread concerns around Saudi Arabia’s human rights record – particularly following this disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – he called on the museum to cancel the event. Jones, along with many others on social media, argued that allowing the event to go ahead represented a form of endorsement of the Saudi regime.

 

Jones encouraged others to contact the museum in order to raise their concerns – by email, phone and via social media – and to call on the museum to cancel the event. Human rights NGO, Amnesty International UK, also called on the museum to justify its decision to host the event. Many attended a protest at the museum’s gates later that evening as the reception went ahead.

In response, the museum issued the following statement on Twitter:

 

 

The Natural History Museum’s statement was reminiscent of the initial response made by the Design Museum when it had emerged that it had hosted a reception event for arms manufacturer Leonardo in July. At the time, the Design Museum said:

‘As a charity, 98% of the museum’s running costs come from admissions, retail, fundraising and event hire, such as the one hosted that night. This was a private event of which there was no endorsement by the museum.’

 

 

In the case of the Design Museum, the controversy escalated. Over 30 artists with work on display in the museum’s ‘From Hope to Nope’ exhibition on design and protest demanded their work was removed unless the museum updated its policies to rule out future partnerships with arms, oil and tobacco companies. When the museum declined, the artists removed their work and set about putting on their own alternative exhibition as part of the Brixton Design Week.

Now, in the space of just a few months, two major museums in London have both encountered significant controversy over their decision to accept event hires from groups with questionable human rights records. But could the Natural History Museum have learned from the Design Museum’s mistakes? And what are the ethical questions these museums in particular still need to address?

1. An event hire is a form of endorsement

The Natural History Museum claimed in its statement, much like the Design Museum, that an event hire does not reflect an endorsement of an organisation’s ‘product, services or views’. But in the same statement, the museum highlights that commercial events held in its ‘iconic space…brings the museum an important source of external funding.’

Here, the Natural History Museum contradicts itself because it implicitly acknowledges that its ‘iconic building’ is a core selling point to those that might want to hold events in the museum. Legitimacy is conferred upon an activity or event simply by holding it in the grand architecture of an iconic museum space or among its renowned collection. To claim otherwise is disingenuous, a suggestion that the museum’s reputation can be comparmentalised before it is then commodified. In reality, a museum’s reputation is more nebulous and it is that symbolic power of the museum’s reputation that is being bought into with event hires and sponsorship deals. You don’t need to put your logo on a museum wall in order to buy into its reputation.

2. Did the museum do its ‘due diligence’?

When facing scrutiny on ethical issues, it is important that a museum or cultural institution demonstrates the ways in which it has been accountable and followed due process. Before agreeing to the event hire, the museum will have needed to undertake a process of ‘due diligence’ in order to satisfy itself that the external party was appropriate to work with. That process should be documented in a research profile or due diligence report as having that paper trail is essential to being properly accountable.

That research then needs to be tested against any internal ethics policies or agreed standards, to ensure that the proposed activity is consistent with the institution’s values. But due diligence, particularly in this case, should not be ongoing and not a one-off process. As the news agenda evolves, what might once have been deemed ‘low-risk’ could now become ‘high-risk’ and the original decision may need to be reviewed.

3. Ethics are an integral part of fundraising.

When called upon to justify its decision to accept an event hire from a controversial group, the Natural History Museum – like the Design Museum – cited the need to raise income from a range of sources in order to fulfil its mission as a core justification. While financial pressures are something museums are contending with on a daily basis, this justification suggests that the ethical stance of the institution is something negotiable, flexible and that can be compromised upon. It implies that if a large enough sum were offered, a financial trade-off can be made around what should be well-established values agreed across the institution.

The museum needs to demonstrate that its ethical stance is the determining factor when it comes to agreeing event hires, sponsorship deals and corporate partnerships. Crucially, a museum is fulfiling its mission by going about its work – including fundraising – in a way that is consistent with the core values that underpin that mission.

4. Transparency around ethics

The museum may already have a fundraising or ethics policy in place. However, this controversy suggest that it needs to establish more clearly what its ethical position in relation to event hires, sponsorships and corporate partnerships is. The Institute of Fundraising suggests that organisations should have a policy that:

‘Defines the parameters of associations across all types of corporate and partnership activity…’

In its recent review of due diligence processes around gifts and donations at DCMS-sponsored museums, the National Audit Office said the best examples it had seen of fundraising policies:

‘Set out a clear ethical position in respect of donations along with the principles which would be used to guide decisions taken by a charity on whether to accept or reject them.’

(See our ‘Ethical Sponsorship’ page for more information, here.)

While event hires are distinct from sponsorships and donations, many of the same principles will apply. A meaninful step forward would be for the museum to review its policies, consult with its staff and stakeholders, and then make that policy publicly available. With a clear ethical position established and clearly stated, partnerships and hires can be agreed confidently on that basis.

Without taking these more robust steps, the risk of future controversy will remain. As the writer and journalist George Monbiot alluded to on Twitter, other questions around still remain around the appropriateness of some of the museum’s funders and donors.