Great North Museum: Hancock, part of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

DCMS in crisis talks over arms firm's Great Exhibition of the North sponsorship

Patrick Steel, 06.03.2018
Artists pull out over BAE Systems involvement
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is in crisis talks with Newcastle Gateshead Initiative (NGI) - the organiser of the Great Exhibition of the North, also known as Get North 2018 - and BAE Systems, over the arms firm’s sponsorship of the event.

The talks come as two artists have pulled out and several more are considering withdrawing over BAE Systems “premier partner” status at the event. The other “premier partners” are Virgin Trains and management consultancy Accenture.

Museums Journal understands that discussions are focused on “how to move forwards” following the outcry over the sponsorship deal, which an NGI spokeswoman said was a “small percentage” of the £12.5m cost of the exhibition.

DCMS declined to comment.

Officially, NGI’s position was set out last week by Gary Verity, the chairman of the Great Exhibition of the North: “BAE Systems is supporting the Great Exhibition of the North as part of its commitment to address the UK skills shortage by encouraging more young people to consider science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers.”

The Commoners’ Choir, led by former Chumbawumba member Boff Whalley, and singer Nadine Shah have pulled out of the event.

A statement issued by the Commoners Choir said: “We felt completely unhappy being represented alongside a corporation with a track record in supplying weaponry to countries waging war on their own people and boasting appalling human rights records.”

And a petition calling for Get North 2018 to drop BAE Systems as a sponsor has gathered more than 2,000 signatures. “BAE has made more than £6bn from sales to Saudi Arabia during the ongoing war in Yemen,” the petition states. “Unicef warns that, ‘nearly every child in Yemen’ is in need of humanitarian assistance. The Great Exhibition of the North claims to offer ‘family-friendly fun’. This is totally at odds with its with association with BAE systems.”

Organisations involved in the event are also distancing themselves from the sponsorship deal.

Iain Watson, the director of Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, which is hosting a number of the exhibition events at its museums, said: “We acknowledge the concerns raised in connection to sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North.
“Funds from the arts council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University are supporting Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ activity and exhibition programmes. We are not in receipt of funds from BAE Systems.”

And a joint statement from Baltic and Sage Gateshead said: “We wish to reassure our artists, partners and stakeholders that Arts Council England funds are supporting the delivery of our artistic content, including the concerts, exhibitions and offsite commissions presented by Baltic and Sage Gateshead. We are not in receipt of funds from BAE Systems.

“Our conversations and commissions with artists and partners began some months and years ago, well in advance of the announcement of BAE Systems as a Premier Partner of the Great Exhibition of the North.”

A spokeswoman for Arts Council England said: “Although we were involved in some of the initial planning discussions about the Great Exhibition of the North, it is a government-led initiative and the content is far wider than the arts council footprint.

“In December last year we awarded £750,000 from our lottery-funded Ambition for Excellence scheme to Newcastle Gateshead Initiative towards the delivery of the Great Exhibition programme.

“The issue for artists and arts organisations of whether to accept sponsorship, or be associated with an organisation receiving sponsorship, can be complex and we expect boards to take it seriously. Our expectation is that where sponsorship is involved boards will consider their position on a case by case basis, including how that sits alongside the organisation’s mission and values.

“It should be remembered that the arts council is just one of the organisations that may provide funding. Organisations we fund are independent and have their own boards. It is not for the arts council to second guess whether a sponsorship fit is appropriate.”

Museums Journal approached BAE Systems for comment.


BAE systems has withdrawn its sponsorship of the Great Exhibition following this week's outcry. A statement released today by the firm said: "While BAE Systems remains supportive of the aims of the Great Exhibition we have decided to redirect our support to other initiatives better suited to both our skills and innovation objectives and in support of the industrial strategy of the north of England."

In response to this, a spokeswoman for NGI said: “We accept and respect BAE Systems' decision. Working with all of our partners, funders, supporters and contributors, we remain focused on delivering a successful event which will shine a spotlight on the North's great art and culture, design and innovation.

“It's a significant opportunity to raise the profile of the North, change outdated perceptions and drive future growth and we are absolutely committed to achieving this success for the benefit of all of us who live, work and do business here."


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
12.03.2018, 12:47
Its not surprising that we get into a mess around this . if we think its wrong then we should say so and back up those words with actions. you cant pick and choose your position on ethical matters say something is wrong and then take the money or use the products or services of the companies in question but we all do and justify it to ourselves
However for the most part around funding we are in an industry full of hypocrisy. This is no different and if we followed the logic of those artists knowing what we do about how we are funded 50% of our museums would close

I could list a 1000 examples of where ethics in the heritage sector are ignored for entirely pragmatic reasons but what would be the point so long as we the chattering classes feel a necessary point has been made. Got to go now I'm off to the British museum which for a variety of well known ethical controversies I should boycott but I rather like the place
08.03.2018, 15:39
Quite right.

I for one will be urging my board to return the government and local government grants we receive much of which is derived from taxation of these horrific companies. it may mean the closure of my museum but never mind.

In addition we should all stop flying planes made by any company involved in military production. This will of course mean an end to all air travel but it is the right thing to do . why don't we all sign up to this now. to do otherwise would be hypocritical

Maybe the MA could be good enough to make public a list of companies and organisations that we should ethically avoid which will presumably have the government on & , Arts Council England as funded from these companies taxes.

maybe we should also look at turning down support from the banking sector who facilitate and service these companies and therefore make profit out of them. Maybe they could be on an amber list of companies.

Martin Stallion
Team Leader, Archives Volunteers, Essex Police Museum
08.03.2018, 22:48
And, of course, all museums should immediately get rid of all the weapons, armour, medals and other militaria in their collections. Unfortunately, I suspect the virtue-signallers in the MA will fail to recognise the irony in your comment and mine
12.03.2018, 11:31
These comments have rightly highlighted that the issue of funding and sponsorship is ethically complex. However, we shouldn't allow that complexity to prevent museums, artists and other cultural institutions from exercising ethical judgment when they feel called to do so. From reading around the events relating to the Great Exhibition of the North, the artists involved appear to have done exactly that - exercised ethical judgment about whether they want their work to be used to in any way benefit the PR of BAE Systems on the basis of the clear evidence they have encountered. Essential to this case though is the question of accountability. Whether or not we agree with the position of the artists, they should have been informed prior to the announcement of the sponsorship rather than having their support for the partnership presumed. To object to it in this case is not virtue signalling but being clear about where ethical 'red lines' lie.

Here, there was a specific question about the role of corporate sponsorship, something which brings social legitimacy and PR benefits to a company through association with cultural activity. Questions about collections or how government funding is generated might be relevant, but they do not give this direct legitimacy to a company and its business practices in the same way. For that reason, there is a particular need for ethical judgment, something that is reflected in not just the MA's Code of Ethics but more widely.
12.03.2018, 16:28
You've hit the nail on the head. It's all very well for people to make sarcastic comments along the lines of some of those above - and yes, of course, it's difficult - NOTHING is perfect, and choices are not easy to make. Certainly, I agree.

But, one does have to draw a line somewhere and as you say, I think there is a line which can be drawn when it comes to allowing a company to be legitimised in this way, and to garner benefits through putting its name on the sponsorship.

Principles can only go so far, but practicality and 'turning a blind eye' can only go so far too - everyone has to stop where they feel it is right surely?
08.03.2018, 10:49
This is unfortunate. Obviously dodgy firms like BAE have plenty of money, and of course it is absolutely in their interests to be seen to be sponsoring worthwhile activities at home, to distract people from their deeply unsavoury practices abroad, so I have no doubt they are being very generous.

But arts organisations just can't take money from people like this. It must be really tempting, when one is begging for every last penny and desperate to find funding from somewhere, and museums are getting more and more desperate as this government starves them of funding, but it is such a slippery slope. Pragmatism has to stop somewhere. And why should firms like BAE be allowed to salve their consciences in such an easy way?

I'm sure that, if one looked into most big companies, one would find dodgy practices: there can't be many who are truly ethical, but there seems an order of magnitude difference, to deal with a group like BAE. The comments above about their billions worth of profit in selling arms to Saudi Arabia etc, are well made. Such sales facilitate murder and human rights abuses every day: it's just that they happen conveniently far enough away from Britain to be covered up most of the time. Do the arts and cultural organisations, which aim to be inclusive and diverse, really want to be associated with this?
07.03.2018, 23:42
Artists can decide to take or refuse to take money from whomever they like or dislike and they should stick to their beliefs and principles. The same applies to Government funding as it is the Government that allows the export licenses for these arms sales to go ahead..

Meanwhile may be BAe could explain how Chumbawumba and the Commoners' Choir help encourage more young people to consider science, technology, engineering and mathematics career because it's not obvious. BAe need to re-target their funding more intelligently in future because it is rebounded on them this time.