George Osborne at the British Museum: what do they see in him? | English museum



The appointment of George Osborne as chairman of the board of trustees of the British Museum is a startling shock. The stain is so obvious, the associations so indelible: can we really come to this? One should not remember with horror the austerity measures of the former chancellor to be dismayed; nor even his notorious cuts in the museum sector, relevant as we certainly hope during the selection process. Osborne was a career politician, after all. But the blatant opportunism, bites, sneers and ostentatious condescension made him unpopular even among members of his own party.

Concerning the selection, questions inevitably arose. Where was the advertisement? Could anyone apply? Who chose him and what were his qualifications (as negligible, in the eyes of critics, as for his recent role as editor-in-chief of The Standard)? Surely he was another conservative placeman, like Jacob Rees-Mogg at the National Portrait Gallery, or conservative donor Richard Sharp as the new president of the BBC?

But it is not that simple. The members of the impressive board of the British Museum, which has up to 25 trustees, are appointed by several methods. Three trustees have just been selected by a jury made up of the president, an independent member and a senior official from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Department; the announcements were public and open to everyone. Others are recommended by the Presidents of the Royal Academy and the Royal Society, among others. No.10’s futile attempt to block Dame Mary Beard last year shows that not all appointments are under Conservative control.

Seven directors have formed a search group for the new president. They were headed by Baroness Shafik, vice-governor of the Bank of England when Osborne was chancellor. He has other friends at the museum’s Grand Court, including Philipp Hildebrand, vice-chairman of BlackRock, who recently employed Osborne with a salary of £ 650,000, and fellow curator Lord Sassoon, a former Treasury spokesperson. The board is filled with financial super insiders.

Still, I’m told the directors voted unanimously for Osborne, including leftists like Grayson Perry, Muriel Gray, Beard and Jamaican-born playwright Pat Cumper. This unanimity is what signifies. Everyone on the board is well aware of Osborne’s reputation; yet it is believed to be exactly what the British Museum needs now. So what can this stubborn Nero-haired operator offer the world’s oldest national museum? A wonderful ability with spreadsheets perhaps, given that his supposedly lean job portfolio still stands at nine, with venture capital advisory roles, two faculty positions, and a full-time role at Robey Warshaw, the Mayfair boutique bank. All useful for the VIP guest list, of course, but that’s hardly what the museum lacks.

Perhaps he will be able to bring Russian money, given his past and present ties to the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and the Standard‘s Evgeny Lebedev. Colleagues in this article recall Osborne insisting on regular references to elephants to please Lebedev, boss of an elephant charity. Or what about a new fossil fuel sponsorship, given Osborne’s massive tax breaks to the sector? You can protest BP’s notorious sponsorship of the museum as much as you want. But remember this: BP is one of Robey Warshaw’s biggest customers.

Apparently, this presents no conflict of interest for the board of directors; in fact, perhaps it seems quite the opposite. What Osborne offers, in particular, is not just his ruthless drive but his closeness to power. He can ask his friends Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson for money when museum funds are scarce; he can appeal directly to his compatriot Oliver Dowden, secretary of state of the DCMS. And Dowden’s non-surrender policy of “stay and explain” coincides all too sharply with the museum’s resistance to returning ill-gotten artefacts.

Nigeria demanded the restitution of the Benin Bronzes, Greece the Parthenon Marbles; how easily one can imagine Osborne’s dancing challenge.

His appointment alienated part of the museum’s fan base, inspiring a social media cultural war. But the public is as indifferent to these corporate and financial security issues as the objects in the museum itself.

Osborne says he’s loved BM all his life. Me too. This is the bare minimum; anyone could tell. But unlike the board, at least we don’t have to shake the hand of a man who joked that he wouldn’t rest until he cut Theresa May in her freezer. Trustees must believe in Osborne, against the evidence for most of his career – believing that he will only work for the museum and not for the interests of his friends or himself.


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