British Museum and Prime Minister at Odds Over New Director

Museum chair George Osborne refused to give Rishi Sunak say over the appointment of the a new director.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during the launch of the local elections campaign on March 22, 2024. Photo: Darren Staples - WPA Pool/Getty Images.

The British Museum appeared to be launching itself into a new era when it named the highly experienced Nicholas Cullinan as its new director last month. The daunting job will require him to navigate the beleaguered museum through various controversies, not least last summer’s shocking theft scandal.

It has now transpired that his appointment caused a spat between the museum and the U.K. conservative government, which requested the opportunity to choose the next leader. It is not the first time that the country’s politicians have tried to exert some control over the upper echelons of cultural leadership.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak asked the British Museum’s chair George Osborne to present two options for the new director and allow him, or a representative, to pick. Osborne refused, according to a report in the Guardian.

The trustees usually inform the prime minister of their decision about the new director in order for it to be formally ratified.

The British Museum and the prime minister’s office at 10 Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment.

The incident recalled another failed attempt by the U.K. government to pick and choose who has power at the British Museum in 2019, when Theresa May was in power. The Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, a household name in the U.K. for her bestselling books and frequent turns on television, was initially barred from becoming a trustee in 2020 by the governmental department that oversees culture.

The reason? Unnamed sources apparently informed museum officials that she had been rejected for her outspokenly pro-European stance on social media, at a time when the U.K. government was desperately trying to see the nation through Brexit. The museum overrode the decision, exercising its right to pick five of its 25 trustees without government approval. She began her role in 2020.

“There’s been an increasing politicization of the nominations to the boards of museums and galleries,” the museum’s interim director Mark Jones told the The Guardian, expressing his personal opinion. “That seems to me to be a shame because I think the criteria for selection should be their suitability for being on the board and the contribution they can make to the museum or gallery.”

For its part, Downing Street, the U.K.’s seat of political power, swiftly back tracked. “The current administration is delighted to see Mary Beard appointed and has no reservations over her appointment, which should have happened sooner,” a spokesperson to the PA news agency.

It is not known exactly why Sunak was so intent on having a say over who will direct the British Museum but he has strongly opposed any suggestion that the country could return or even loan the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, a resolution to the dispute over its ownership that Osborne is in favor of.

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