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24 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 11:35am

What does George Osborne’s appointment mean for the British Museum?

Since museums are almost as much about money as artefacts, there is a clear logic to the former chancellor’s appointment as chair of trustees.

By Michael Prodger

Having left his editor-in-chief role at the Evening Standard earlier this year, the famously employment-hungry George Osborne was in need of a new job, and now he has one. When the former Financial Times editor  Richard Lambert steps down as chair of trustees at the British Museum in October, Osborne will step up.

It is an appointment made following an independent search led by the museum’s deputy chair, Minouche Shafik, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England whose tenure there overlapped with Osborne’s time as chancellor of the Exchequer. One degree of separation notwithstanding, the decision to elevate Osborne was apparently unanimous.

The British Museum’s board of trustees can comprise up to 25 members. Fifteen of them are appointed by the Prime Minister (and five by the trustees themselves). The current board of 19 includes Mary Beard (initially rejected by the government for her pro-Europe views), Grayson Perry, Muriel Gray and – one degree of separation etc – Philipp Hildebrand, the vice-chairman of BlackRock, the asset management corporation that formerly paid Osborne £650,000 a year for a four-days-a-month position (equating to £13,541 a day).

They must be a forgiving lot: it was Osborne, who, as austerity chancellor, delivered a 2010 spending review that announced a 30 per cent cut to Arts Council England’s budget (and a 50 per cent cut in administrative costs), as well as a 15 per cent cut to national museums’ funding. Nevertheless, according to Shafik, “George Osborne has a long-standing commitment to culture”, which no doubt encompasses an interest in the wallpaper designs of Osborne & Little, the family firm in which he owns a 15 per cent stake.

Osborne’s familiarity with the financial machinery of Whitehall was clearly enough to override any concerns – if indeed there were any. Since museums are almost as much about money as artefacts, there is a clear logic to Osborne’s appointment. The British Museum is one of the 14 national museums and galleries that receive funding directly from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Osborne once held the department’s purse-strings, so he should understand them – although the lobbying difficulties his former overseer David Cameron has run into may limit his effectiveness somewhat.

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The museum probably had its ten-year masterplan in mind too, which will include, among other things, an expensive overhaul of its buildings. With his fat Whitehall and financial-world contacts book, Osborne will be expected to help magic-up the epic funds this will necessarily entail. There are plenty of other challenges too, not least the ongoing rumbles about the fate of the Elgin Marbles and the rising calls for the restitution of at least some of the 200 bronzes looted by British troops from the royal city of Benin in Nigeria in 1897 now held in the museum. The British Museum Act of 1963 forbids the institution from disposing of any of its holdings, but the museum has been working with the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium of Nigerian and European museums, to ease tensions and find imaginative solutions.

Meanwhile, Osborne and his board will have to tiptoe their way through the culture wars flak, with the threatening words of the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden ringing loud in their ears that museums should “continue to act impartially in line with your publicly-funded status”. If Osborne can navigate the museum through all this, then the eyebrows raised by his appointment might be lowered.

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