Museums exist to serve the public, not the arms trade

Our most famous museums and attractions are giving practical support and a veneer of legitimacy to the arms industry, writes Andrew Smith

December 24, 2014 · 4 min read

Tower_of_London_Poppy‘Museums belong to everybody. They exist to serve the public. They should enhance the quality of life of everyone, both today and in the future’ – Museum Association Code of Ethics

It took the Tower of London less than a month to go from commemorating those that died in the war to playing its part in encouraging another. Millions may have visited the world famous site to pay their condolences, but while the last of the poppies were still on display, its world famous facilities were playing host to some of the biggest arms companies in the world.

The arms dealers weren’t there to pay their respects; they were there for the Lockheed Martin sponsored Defence and Security 2014 event. The night was organised by the London Chamber of Commerce Defence and Security Committee, a body that includes representatives from major arms companies such as BAE Systems, Thales UK and Lockheed Martin, as well as UKTI DSO, the taxpayer funded arms export body.

The purpose of the evening, which cost £240 a head, was to bring arms dealers and arms company reps together with civil servants and industry analysts. Upon arrival they were greeted with a champagne reception, a ‘luxurious’ three course dinner and a chance to network and do business.

Unfortunately, the Tower of London is far from the only great landmark or public institution to take money from the arms trade. The Science Museum, Imperial War Museum and National Museums Scotland all join it on the long and disappointing list of well known tourist sites and public spaces that have played host to the arms trade over recent years.

Arms companies aren’t just looking to hold events. Sponsorship agreements, such as that between the London Transport Museum and arms company Thales are a vital part of their quest for acceptability and normalisation. Educational events, such as the Edinburgh Science Festival and the Big Bang Fair have provided yet another opportunity to promote themselves and seek social legitimacy. Likewise, drone company Selex ES was among the main sponsors of the Commonwealth Games when they took place in Glasgow earlier this year.

Of course there are real and serious funding problems for a number of museums and public institutions. But that doesn’t make companies that profit from war and conflict any more compatible with their educational objectives. Endorsements work both ways, so taking money to promote a company is not a morally neutral act. Furthermore, if arms companies and those that profit from war are not considered beyond the pale then is there anyone these institutions do consider to be off-limits?

These museums are part of the fabric of our society and should not be compromised or co-opted by the arms trade. Arms companies aren’t cozying up to them because they have suddenly decided that they care about promoting arts, history or culture. It is because they come with prestige and it’s good for business.

Unfortunately, by agreeing to take money from these companies, some of our most famous museums and attractions are giving practical support and a veneer of legitimacy to an industry that profits from the same war and conflict that the Tower of London was marking this winter.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade and tweets @caatuk


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