OSBORNE DEFIES SUNAK OVER APPOINTMENT OF NEW BRITISH MUSEUM DIRECTOR

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The dwindling authority of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak appears to have been dealt another blow with reports that the Chair of the British Museum board of trustees, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, has refused to allow the Prime Minister the final say in choosing the new director of the British Museum.

The Guardian newspaper reported on Thursday [11 April 2024] that in a break with established convention under the arms length principle in the governance of UK cultural bodies, Mr Sunak had instructed the British Museum board’s selection panel to submit a short list of two names from which the Prime Minister, or his staff, would make the final choice of the new director to lead the scandal wracked museum.

However, the newspaper reports, British Museum chair George Osborne effectively told the Prime Minister to get back into his box, or words to that effect.

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Downing Street then seems to have rolled over and ratified the board’s choice of candidate, Art Historian Dr Nicholas Cullinan, the current Director of the National Portrait
Gallery, who will now take the short taxi ride up the road from Trafalgar Square to Bloomsbury.

Having been a curator at the New York Metropolitan Museum and London’s Tate Modern, and given the serious issues facing the BM, not least around £1Bn of repairs and refurbishment, it is probably no coincidence that Dr Cullinan’s candidacy was a runner, given he has recently overseen a major refurbishment at the National Portrait Gallery and refreshed the way the collection is seen and presented.

Dr Cullinan is also a “clean skin” with no links to the British Museum regime which has most recently allowed the alleged theft and sale of hundreds of objects by one of its own curators and which has faced demands for the restitution of contested elements of the collection, most famously the Parthenon Marbles.

However, this is not the first time the Conservative Government has tried, and failed, to interfere in appointments to the senior management of the British Museum.

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In 2020 the Government, then led by Boris Johnson, with Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary, blocked the appointment of Dame Mary Beard as a trustee, allegedly because of her anti-Brexit views.

However, on that occasion too the Government was frustrated when the British Museum board simply appointed the famous classicist to a board seat which was in their gift and not the Government’s.

Mr Johnson also tried and failed, to get former editor of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre appointed to head broadcasting regulator Ofcom and the former editor of the Telegraph, Sir Charles Moore made Chairman of the BBC.

Sir Charles would have joined on the BBC Board Theresa May’s former head of Communications Robbie Gibb, brother of senior Conservative MP and former Schools Minister, Nick Gibb.

It’s a small world, and the Government met with greater success elsewhere, with Zewditu Gebreyohanes, late of the right of centre Policy Exchange think tank and the then director of the AstroTurf entryist organisation Restore Trust, being given a seat on the board of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

There she joined Mathew Elliot, the former CEO of the official pro Brexit campaign Vote Leave and a founder member in 2012 of the Conservative friends of Russia along with Carrie Symonds, now Carrie Johnson.

Mathew Elliot became Baron Elliott of Mickle Fell, of Barwick-in-Elmet in the City of Leeds in the resignation “honours” list of Liz Truss.

It is not known who Mr Sunak’s Downing Street operation would have favoured as director of the British Museum, although, given his own stated positions, it could be surmised that the Prime Minister would support someone who would be outspoken in supporting the retention of contested parts of the collection such as the Parthenon Marbles and Benin Bronzes.

While in apparently defying his fellow Conservative it may be that, in defending the arms length principle, Mr Osborne might also have at least half an eye on a possible change of management in Downing Street after the General Election and the advent of a new Prime Minister who wouldn’t cancel a scheduled meeting with the Greek Prime Minister merely because his counterpart had the temerity to mention the Greeks would like to see the return of Lord Elgin’s trafficked artefacts.

An astute political operator, Mr Osborne would not want the British Museum to be saddled with a director appointed to represent the ancien regime as Britain reclaims its future.

Or not.

 

 

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