Design Museum attacks its own exhibitors, defends working with arms dealers

Two weeks ago, the Design Museum rented out its building to arms dealers while an exhibition of political art – including our BP ruff – was on display. Under pressure from artists to admit its mistake, the museum has instead posted a defensive and inaccurate statement on its website attacking its own exhibitors and refusing to break its ties with arms dealers. Whatever the museum was intending to achieve with this statement, the main effect so far has been to make a lot of artists and designers even more angry and upset. Here’s our response:

The wall where our ruff hangs in the Design Museum. The posters and the T-shirt were also provided by artists who now want their work removed, so after tomorrow there won’t be much to see on this wall. Photo by BP or not BP?

We were shocked to see the Design Museum’s latest statement about our request to remove our art from the Hope to Nope exhibition. Rather than engaging with the issues we and other exhibitors have raised, the museum has instead made the bizarre (and offensive) suggestion that over 40 artists and groups featured in its exhibition have all somehow been duped by some mysterious ‘professional activists’.

The reality is far simpler: some of us discovered that the arms event had happened in the museum, were deeply upset by it, and then contacted other artists in the exhibition, who were also upset. We talked to each other and decided we had no choice but to remove our art, and then worked together on a joint letter. Can the museum not understand the concept of a large group of people deciding – each on their own terms – to take a moral stand, and then choosing to support each other in doing so? Has the museum not seen the independent statements made by different artists and designers, in their own words, about why they are taking this action? Have they not been reading the numerous personal emails they have received on this subject from many exhibitors?

Shepard Fairey, designer of the iconic Obama “Hope” poster, is one of the artists requesting that his work be removed. Which will rather take the edge off the name of the exhibition.

Our guess is that by ‘professional activists’ the museum is referring to the good people at Campaign Against Arms Trade, who have been very supportive, including hosting our letters on their website and sending out press releases – but they have not played any role in our discussions or decisions.

We’re also unimpressed by the Design Museum’s continued insistence that we and the other artists have somehow misunderstood or are misrepresenting the arms event that took place in their building. We have never claimed that this was a programmed museum event – we have said from the start that it was a private commercial booking. The point is that the museum allowed the arms industry to make that booking – they were happy to take money from arms dealers to let them throw a party in their building. One of our fellow exhibitors Dread Scott made a good point in our discussions: if the English Defence League or the Ku Klux Klan asked to book a party in the museum, would the directors happily sign off on that too? Hopefully they would not – because they would realise that doing so would legitimise those organisations, help further their activities and give them the museum’s tacit stamp of approval. But that’s exactly what they’ve just done for a group of professional warmongers.

The idea that an ethical fundraising policy would significantly undermine the museum’s income or somehow break Charity Commission rules is also completely spurious – many other arts organisations have such policies, as explained in this excellent response to the Design Museum by Culture Unstained. In fact, ethical fundraising policies are recommended by the Charities Commission and the Museums Association as basic good practice, to help align museums’ funding with their organisational values, build positive relationships with stakeholders and reduce reputational risk. All things that the Design Museum is doing the opposite of right now.

This latest statement only confirms our belief that the Design Museum has no interest in making a genuine commitment to stop working with arms (and fossil fuel and tobacco) companies, leaving us with no choice but to remove our object from Hope to Nope.

Along with other exhibitors, we will be at the Design Museum at 11am tomorrow to receive our art back. Here’s our most recent joint statement explaining why.


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