Curating colonialism: Reflections on Osborne’s appointment to chair ‘Brutish’ Museum

Last Thursday, George Osborne, former Chancellor of Exchequer, was unanimously appointed the new chair of the British Museum’s board of trustees. This position is not government-appointed, however given his high-status role in the Cameron cabinet and in the Conservative party more broadly, the decision has garnered considerable controversy. It has fed into an ongoing debate over the state’s role in the curation of a white supremacist British self-image, particularly with regards to cultural restitution, the display of stolen items, and national profit from colonial legacies.  

In recent months numerous government ministers and Conservative politicians have hit back at what they see as the ‘demonisation’ of British history, with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden penning a piece in the Telegraph titled ‘We won’t allow Britain’s history to be cancelled.’ Likewise, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has argued that ‘the so-called decolonisation of the curriculum is in effect censoring our history.’ The conversation has coalesced around issues such as the teaching of colonialism in schools and what to do about monuments to imperialists like Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes. Heritage institutions have become a key site of this cultural battle. Recently, a National Trust’s report assessed its buildings’ links to colonialism and slavery, provoking a backlash against the charity from right-wing commentators. The Daily Mail reported ‘Britain’s top cultural institutions are ‘under threat’ from a ‘woke cult’, claims ex-National Trust boss after organisation’s current chairman quit amid a revolt over his ‘left wing’ policies’.  

Thus, it is significant that such a political appointment has been made to the British Museum, the most notorious host of the country’s colonial loot. In response to the news, Professor Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums and curator at the Pitts Museum, warned of pressures on ‘curatorial freedom’, arguing that ‘the damage done by ministerial diktats, threats of funding cuts, and purging trustee bodies creates a chilling effect across the sector.’ Sir Charles Dunstone recently quit as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Museums Greenwich after the government blocked the reappointment of Dr Aminul Hoque, an advocate of ‘decolonising the curriculum’, to its board.  

It is also worth noting that aside from Osborne’s politics, he is a straight, white, privately educated man, with no background in the sector. Only 7% of those working in British heritage are classed as BAME, despite Britain’s history being bound up in colonial conquest and the exploitation of non-white labour. By refusing to repatriate artefacts and excluding diverse voices from the stories it tells, the British Museum is complicit in profiting from the continuing structures of imperialism.  

However, it is this critique that the government is so vehemently opposed to, as demonstrated by the recent Sewell Report, which disparaged accusations that Britain could be institutionally racist. Margot Tudor’s blog post on the subject explored how public inquiries such as these can serve to bolster the state’s preferred narrative rather than uncover new truths. Our project is concerned with the kind of stories that inquiries tell, and who is telling them. Increased government meddling in national museums and the work of academics and universities raises similar questions.