Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Letter from Donor Watch (PAP 49)


  We would like to support the call of the Museums Association for the present system of selection of trustees of our national museums to be questioned.

  I have made some points in my article "Can trustees by trusted?" in ArtWatch UK Newsletter, 9, Spring 2000.

  In particular it is troubling that some boards of trustees seem to have little concept of their obligation to honour the terms under which they have received gifts and bequests. The Museums Association helps to put that obligation in doubt, when its Code of Ethics for Museums (2002) states that all those who work in museums should (7.11) "uphold and comply with conditions set by benefactors and accepted by the museum, unless changed circumstances means that conditions need to be reconsidered in the light of what is generally held to be the public interest." As Trollope remarked, the plea of "changed circumstances" may give carte blanche to do anything. Lord Jowitt, sometime Tate chairman and Labour Lord Chancellor, expressed unqualified disapproval of the disregard of donors' conditions, but today some are unfortunately more equivocal.

  Secondly, it is regretable if trustees representing some other body are eliminated. When I worked for Manchester City Art Gallery, various bodies (such as the Royal Manchester Institution, which had given the main building) nominated some of the members of the gallery's committee, to the general benefit of its deliberations. Those have since been swept away. The Tate has said that it has no representative trustees. That disregards the fact that two are generally artists, representing informally their confre"res, and others represent Tate St Ives and Tate Liverpool and the National Gallery. However these are not appointed by outside bodies. Proposed extension of this has been summarily dismissed in the past.

  As it is, there appears to be a lack of independence among trustees, a fact which must stem from their method of appointment. Some private museums have made more effort to be more wide-ranging in their selection of trustees eg the Nöle Museum in Germany, which is enjoined to have at least one selected from the general public or "man in the street".

Dr Selby Whittingham

April 2002

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