Shock, outrage and incredulity best characterise the reaction by some in the museum Twitter community at the announcement of Doug Gurr as the new director of the Natural History Museum, London. The Museum came under sustained criticism as it made the announcement for being ‘tone-deaf’ to the calls for increasing diversity in the museum workforce. But looking beyond the headlines, what does this appointment really tell us about the state of the sector?
A museum at a crossroads
Full disclosure time here before you read on, I was lucky enough to get a job straight out of university at the Natural History Museum and spent my formative years as a museum professional there.
There is much to celebrate in the work of the Museum over the last two decades since 2007 museum scientists have been world leaders in the development of citizen science practices, the popularity of Dippy on Tour has brought considerable benefits to both partner museums and local economies, between 2003 and 2012 the Real World Science learning programme helped reinvigorate the teaching of science in schools and the international work, from research partnership to collaborations with global partners, has helped influence the global agenda around issues facing the natural world.
But there are still significant challenges for this institution, as a tourist attraction, the Museum continues to grow it’s visitor numbers but has long out of date displays and galleries and as a research centre it has a world-class collection with outstanding collection managers, curators and scientists but less than ideal infrastructure that risks stifling important research.
The Museum is at a crossroads as it reaches the 150th anniversary of its opening. The A Planetary Emergency: Our Response Strategy to 2031 is a bold and ambitious plan to take an important leadership role in the UK and beyond in addressing the challenges we and our planet faces.
Over the next decade, this institution will have an increasingly critical role to play in helping us all make sense of the climate and ecological crisis we are facing. The collections-based research that the Museum facilitates will help us understand how we can adapt to a rapidly changing planet and through high-quality public engagement, the Museum will hopefully help equip people with the knowledge and tools to be advocates for change.
These are just some of the issues the incoming Director must deal with and what clearly has informed the recruitment process. The Museum needs someone who can deliver this and much more for such a large and complex organisation.
Governance is where it’s at
Directorship appointments are increasingly flashpoints issues, just compare the reactions to Doug Gurr with the news of Tim Davie’s appointment to Director-General of the BBC a few weeks ago.
Concerns about diversity are justified and legitimate, for example, only 10 of the 45 museums that make up the National Museum Directors’ Council are women. It is absolutely right to point out the lack of diversity at the highest levels of the museum sector. However, in all the heat generated by these appointments an underlying structural issue is getting overlooked, governance and the diversity of the people who sit on the boards of trustees, the people who actually make these appointments.
Museum boards are mostly white folk. Let’s be honest. The data confirms it. In the Arts Council England’s Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: A Data Report, 2018–19, people of Black and Asian Ethnicity made up just 3% of all board members in Major Partner Museums. The figures for representation of people under 34 stood at 4%, 4% for people identifying as LGBTQ+ and representation of people living with disabilities at just 3%.
A board that is diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, social background and ableness provides an opportunity to change perspectives on institutional issues including executive recruitment.
As with most issues, this isn’t a new one. Just ask Sara Wajid from the Museum of London, she was talking about her experiences way back in 2007 in a great first-person perspective about her experiences of being the only ethnic minority on a board.
The system of governance needs to change if we are to address the legitimate issues of representation. This dysfunctional system is especially acute at the national museum level. Appointments to boards are now at risk of becoming explicitly based on government patronage. An issue that recently came to a head with the blocking by the government of Mary Beard to the board of trustees to the British Museum.
Doing things differently
Tate recently made (actual) headlines with the appointment of 28-year-old Anna Lowe to its board of trustees as Youth Engagement Trustee. For Tate, it was a logical next step in its approach to engaging young people. The appointment demonstrates that the work to increase representation and diversity in its audiences needs to go beyond programmes such as the brilliant Tate Collective. To embed the work fully, a greater diversity of voices was needed at an institutional governance level. This is just one example at a national level, on local and independent levels there are many other examples of museums innovating in governance structures and recruiting people to boards that better represent their local communities.
What does the Natural History Museum need over the next 10 years?
Back to Doug Gurr. Other criticisms that were levelled at the incoming Director included his employment background and suitability of his experience.
There were easy (and frankly lazy) shots about his background at Amazon which reflected concerns about importing working practices into the sector. Let’s not kid ourselves, those practices don’t need to be imported they are already flourishing across the sector and are a reality for many people who call museums their workplace. Ask the outsourced cleaners or security guards.
The Natural History Museum is a large and complex organisation that needs effective leadership to deliver all it aspires to in difficult times ahead and we shouldn’t so easily dismiss the skills and experience he brings to the role from experience outside the sector. Yes, he has no (paid) museum experience, but look at the executive team he has around him, all with significant experience in the Museum’s core business of science and public engagement leading teams with who will help realise the Museum’s ambitions.
Now is the time for change
The anger generated by the Doug Gurr’s appointment, I feel, genuinely reflects the structural issues that have created the impression that only white grey-haired men can be museum directors. The great work by initiatives such as Museum Detox (https://www.museumdetox.org/) and Museum as Muck that aim to diversify the museum workforce are fantastic examples of the bottom-up approach to deal with the issue. But more needs to be done from the top to create opportunities for the next generation of museum directors to continue to develop their leadership skills and it’s up to these museum directors to help bring about change.
These flashpoints will continue to happen but they are just symptoms. One way to deal with the cause is to rethink the approach to governance, time to be bold and innovative in approaches to appointments to boards of trustees.
These are my thoughts, slightly longer than a Twitter thread admittedly, it would be great to discuss this. Drop me a line over on the socials.
About the author – Dean Veall
Dean Veall is the Deputy Head of Public Engagement at University of Bath. He is an award winning, experienced museum learning and public engagement specialist with over 10 years’ experience of developing and delivering engagement activities in museum and university settings.