Paddy Rodgers and two other prominent shipping figures have found themselves caught in an escalating culture war after the museum they lead became the latest victim of a concerted “cultural cleansing” campaign by the UK government.
Telecoms billionaire Sir Charles Dunstone quit in late January as chairman of the board of trustees of the state-run Royal Museums Greenwich over the refusal of culture secretary Oliver Dowden to reappoint another trustee who has been critical of government policy.
Dowden vetoed the reappointment of Dr Aminul Hoque, a leading Bangladeshi-British academic at nearby Goldsmiths, University of London, who helped lead the world-renowned museum’s response to the Black Lives Matter debate last year.
Among the eight current trustees are two other well-known shipping figures. Former Lloyd’s Register chief executive Alastair Marsh was appointed in 2018 and former Baltic Exchange chief executive Jeremy Penn in 2019.
It is only the latest in a string of reappointments to UK institutions that have been blocked under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s aggressive push to replace critics with those more sympathetic to government policy.
Rodgers quit as boss of one of the world’s biggest tanker companies — Euronav — two years ago after which he made a sharp change in career to be appointed director of the institution in August 2019.
Hoque, a specialist in education and cultural identity, is believed to have been only the third person from an ethnic minority to have been a trustee of the museum, which comprises the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, the Peter Harrison Planetarium, the Queen’s House and the Cutty Sark.
His academic work has advocated “decolonising” the curriculum, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the story. The chair of a large institution likened the approach of the Johnson government to “cultural cleansing”, the newspaper reported.
The museum complex has a huge archive of British shipping documents and artefacts from the last few centuries when the industry played a central part in the establishment and maintenance of the British Empire and the slave trade.
Both subjects are the focus of campaigns for institutions to reassess their historical role.
Last summer, a statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into the dock in Bristol, while University of Oxford's Oriel College has set up a commission to examine the future of a prominent statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
The right-wing of the governing Conservative party is vocal in its hostility to such debate.
Sir Charles — who co-founded Carphone Warehouse and is now executive chairman of TalkTalk — was appointed a trustee and subsequently chairman as part of a drive to improve governance and increase corporate lending. First appointed in 2013 for four years, his second term was due to expire in November this year.
Sir Charles was a supporter of New Labour under Tony Blair but switched to the Conservatives when led by David Cameron.
Late shipping magnate Sammy Ofer gave the museum £20m ($32m) in 2008 to build a wing that opened in 2011 and now carries his name.
After Sir Charles quit, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, appointed Sir Mark Stanhope as chairman. Sir Mark was already a trustee and is a former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff.
Sir Charles’ office at TalkTalk said he would not be making any comment, while the Royal Museums Greenwich said it was a matter for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which has also not commented.
It is believed the other trustees — including Sir Mark — supported Hoque’s reappointment.
Hoque told the Financial Times that he was “shocked, disappointed and baffled” by the decision. He has been contacted by TradeWinds for further comment.
The good and the bad
Rodgers has not commented on the latest row, but he has in the past said there was the need for Britain to “talk about the good and the bad” of its colonial history.
In an interview with London’s Evening Standard last year, he said institutions should use such an approach: “Then you tell a richer story that is relevant to [more] people and will have relevance long after Britain takes its correct role in the world, which I think we have to come to terms with.
“We can’t tell a story of Britain’s exceptionalism for another 100 years based on an empire that’s already 100 years old, and which many people saw as the blight of their lives.”
It is part of Rodgers drive to make the museum relevant to more people.
“Opening it up — investigating, giving access, talking about things — doesn’t have to be as frightening as people seem to make it,” he told the Evening Standard.
“I think the first thing is just owning up to the fact that we all make mistakes. Our museums need to be open to discussing our history. And when we do, it could be positive. We could shape and help society in a way that we might surprise ourselves.”