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21 July 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 2:19pm

Why Amazon UK’s head is a fitting choice to lead the Natural History Museum

Gig economy-style reductions in pay and secure employment contracts are now standard in UK national museums. 

By Caitlin Doherty

In June, the Natural History Museum announced that it will appoint a new director at the end of 2020. As with the former Labour MP Tristram Hunt’s appointment to the V&A in 2017, the chosen candidate has proven controversial. Doug Gurr will assume the role after a career largely spent in online retail: several years helping Asda to expand its internet presence and improve its share of the home delivery market, followed by nine years at Amazon, the last four of which as head of UK operations. How did a retail management specialist (one frequently described as a fitness-obsessed polymath) qualify for the role of maintaining Britain’s collection of natural history specimens? 

Reports that Boris Johnson was personally involved in the appointment suggest ministerial cronyism. This theory is supported by the fact that between now and his joining the NHM, Gurr will lead the overhaul of the Cabinet Office’s Government Digital Services websites. Further evidence of Tory patronage is the Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s plea in March 2020 to Amazon Web Services (the company’s cloud services arm) to help dispatch 100,000 Covid-19 testing kits in the early days of the lockdown. Gurr also enjoyed a stint as a non-executive director for the Department for Work and Pensions in 2016, and he continues to hold the same position at HM Land Registry. 

Gurr’s connections with Conservative administrations past and present run deep. Nevertheless, he also has links to the British museum sector. Between 2010 and 2014 he was the chair of the board of trustees for the Science Museum Group, a voluntary position on a committee of government-appointed bankers, industrialists and scientists. But does this position alone qualify Gurr as the caretaker for 80 million pieces of historic flora and fauna? 

His appointment is not based on any past commitment to natural sciences. Rather, it is his career-long practice of moving deftly between the private and public sector. His shifts between the civil service, charities, and corporate governance make him exceedingly qualified for a job in the murky world of the UK heritage sector. Since the reforms to their funding models by the Thatcher government in the late 1980s, museums and cultural institutions have been forced to become financially independent from the state, opening up fissures between the staff and the management of institutions such as the Science Museum. 

Leadership roles in museums are still offered to experienced curatorial staff. But these positions increasingly fall under the purview of well-connected people from the worlds of business and politics, such as Hunt and Gurr. Far from being contradictory, Gurr’s overlapping tenures at Amazon (2011-2020) and as chair of the board at the Science Museum (2010-2014) are, in fact, complementary experiences. Management strategies pioneered in the online retail sector, such as the expansion of large storage facilities, new digital technologies for online cataloguing, and reductions in pay and secure employment contracts are now standard in UK national museums. 

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Gurr is credited with introducing a new era of “transparency” while head of Amazon UK. In 2015, he launched one of the most successful Amazon PR campaigns: the introduction of “behind the scenes” tours at a number of UK fulfilment centres. I took part in one of these tours at a site outside Coventry in 2019, where I joined a group of people on a carefully managed jaunt through the picking, sorting and packing belts in the plant. A digital camera took my photo in front of the automated “picking” robots and emailed it to me with a trademark Amazon arrowhead smile layered above my head. The experience felt less like an exciting vision of the future of work, and more like an excursion through a corporate-sponsored technology museum. 

It is possible that Gurr’s decision to appease public concern over the poor treatment of Amazon warehouse and delivery staff through these tours was influenced by the same “backstage” trend in the museum sector. During the past decade, transparency and visibility have become bywords for new models of museum display and engagement. Gurr’s new professional home, the NHM, launched one of the first UK examples of transparent laboratories, the Darwin Centre, in 2002. 

The centre is described by the NHM as displaying to the tax-paying public “real scientists doing real work”. As the historian Nicky Reeves has pointed out, visibility is always to some extent a performance, stage-managed to obscure elements of institutional practice. In the case of the Darwin Centre, and similar “visible” work centres within the Science Museum Group, attention on laboratory research and conservation is a way of highlighting the most prestigious and well-paid museum jobs, diverting visitors’ attention from troublesome parts, such as recent strike action by museum workers against the use of temporary contracts and below-inflation wage rises. Glass-panelled conservation labs at NHM will not show the reality of museum life as experienced by a precariously employed gallery attendant or cleaner, just as the Amazon tours will mask the reality of work for those on low pay and temporary contracts. Gurr’s professed desire for greater transparency in museums and retail is not as clear-cut as it seems. 

Achieving transparency in the NHM will also require acknowledging the colonial origins of large amounts of the museum’s specimens. The historian and museum theorist Anke te Heesen has written of how museums amass authority by demonstrating the wealth of objects they already contain. But this de facto justification avoids important questions of collection ethics: what are the origins of specimens and objects, or the kind of assumptions and biases present in what is chosen for collection, how are they classified and stored, and when and how are they displayed? The NHM holds the remains of 25,000 humans among its collections, largely the result of violent British imperial attitudes towards non-European peoples that would classify them as part of the natural rather than the social world. 

The NHM’s human remains collection dates back to the transfer in 1881 of 600 individuals from the British Museum, an institution founded in the 18th century by an endowment from the doctor Hans Sloane, who collected objects from enslaved west Africans in Jamaica. Since 2004, a change in British law allows for the repatriation of human remains less than 1,000 years old held in museum collections. But the NHM has been criticised for refusing to return remains for burial and consecration despite requests from living descendants. 

National museums have come under increased scrutiny in recent years for their acceptance of sponsorship from multinational corporations with dubious environmental and humanitarian records. Gurr’s professed commitment to tackling the challenge of climate change while at the NHM (the museum’s mission according to its current chair of trustees is to “create advocates for the planet”) may well have been nurtured during his time as Science Museum board chairman, when the museum ran a three-year Shell-sponsored project encouraging school students to “engage and inspire their peers on the subject of climate change”. 

Greenwashing protests continue to dominate the coverage of national museums’ involvement with corporations, but to understand the effect of private business interests on a public culture of education and research, we have to look closer at the appointments of new directors, at the treatment of staff, at the assumptions of neutrality presented in government plans for culture and heritage in these institutions. As theatres and other cultural institutions fail in the wake of Covid-19, free national museums will undoubtedly carry the burden of providing academic entertainment for families and school groups. As their responsibility for education and inspiration increases, so too must the scrutiny they face.

Caitlin Doherty is an editorial and marketing assistant at Verso Books and completed a PhD at the Science Museum in 2018

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