Royal Museums Greenwich Boss Paddy Rodgers (See Photo)

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    Royal Museums Greenwich Boss Paddy Rodgers See Photo

    Ten months in post, the CEO of Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new artworks for his office, which he was allowed to pick from the museum’s store, though it was so long ago now he can’t recall the artists. The more significant pictures are off limits, but “if I had the choice I would steal the Lowry [View of Deptford Power Station, Greenwich] from the Queen’s House”.

    It’ll be a while yet before they can be hung. Lockdown hasn’t been so bad though, says Rodgers, 60, who lives just across the park with his wife, a psychotherapist, and his youngest daughter, 18. At the start the museums “went through the charade of furloughing”, balancing the paradox that “we get paid grant in aid to work, now the only way to get financial support for lost income from the entrepreneurial side of the museum is to not work”, but they have kept staff informed in a weekly newsletter. The education teams have been busy — RMG comprises the National Maritime Museum, the Queen’s House, Cutty Sark (soon to reopen) and the Royal Observatory, so they’ve been producing homeschooling materials.

    That’s not to say things are rosy. Like most similar organisations, around half of the museums’ revenue comes from commercial sales (shops, cafes, charging exhibitions) “and that went to zero with the lockdown”.

    So what’s to be done? “Of course delay, postpone, defer for every expenditure that’s variable, make use of the job retention scheme — and we will use reserves up, but realistically, we have to find a way of bridging.” RMG has asked for “an exceptional grant” to bridge the gap until it can start making back commercial income — but with half of the museum’s visitors coming from overseas, that won’t be for a couple of years, he thinks.

    With no museum experience, he was not the obvious candidate to lead RMG — except that he has done quite a lot of messing about with boats. He was CEO of Euronav, a shipping company that became, under his leadership, the biggest oil tanker company in the world.

    What perhaps comes as a surprise, in that context, is his obsession with the environment. He returns to it several times in our conversation, and the first decision he was involved in was to bring the Polly Higgins — one of the boats used in the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations — to the museum.

    “This is important. What’s the story of the ocean that we’re telling at the museum? We’re fundamentally altering how the planet distributes heat.”

    Rodgers was director and chairman of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, which advises on the best way to clean up spills to cause the least environmental damage.

    “I used to work for a business that burned a million tonnes of fuel a year,” he says. “That’s just the engine fuel. It worried us, we thought about it, we didn’t know what the alternative was.

    “What I can tell you is that for moving one kilo one kilometre, the shipping industry probably burns about nine grams of carbon. If you fly it’s about 600. All journeys aren’t essential. We are at a point when we should be thinking about not making non-essential journeys. Going on holiday to have a winter break is not a valuable use of carbon.”

    I’ve asked him about corporate sponsorship — beggars can’t be choosers, and I wonder how he feels about taking money from companies that have attracted unfavourable attention in recent years, such as BP.

    “We need to talk about it. We’re not going to get anywhere by having a defensive approach,” he begins. “I think that a lot of people in the cultural sector would say that our lives are difficult enough, don’t take away from us one of the few…” he pauses, and changes tack. “If you object to the damage that fossil fuels are doing then you must deal with that at the point that really affects the fossil fuel industry, which is not buying their product,” he says.

    He insists the way forward is to have proper, open conversations with sponsors — “you have to say I’m not prepared to accept conditionality around the way I receive money, or that you shape my agenda.” A smidgeon of exasperation is detectable. “There are people who want to virtue-signal, and forcing a museum to make a statement so that you can hold a position in society isn’t going to help us. We have a really big problem to solve.”

    It’s been one hell of a few months for big problems (and virtue signalling), but he is upbeat. “I think the challenges we’ve had [mean] everybody is in a process of re-evaluation — what really matters to me? Young people were already questioning whether society was structured in a way that met their needs, and what we’ve seen over Black Lives Matter is an expression of that.”

    He believes that museums “have a role to play in offering multiple perspectives on our history in a way that clarifies people’s ability to reflect on their ­identity.”

    He uses the example of the National Maritime Museum’s Pacific Encounters display, which explores “the complex legacy of European exploration and how this has shaped the Pacific as we know it today”, as the website has it.

    “It’s taking the example of Captain Cook and his voyages into the Pacific to give a full-perspective view of what those encounters looked like. The consequences have to be taken into account as well.”

    Twenty years ago, the story would have been “that Cook was an exceptional man and he did these wonderful things. He didn’t — he went and met a lot of other people and various things happened. Now let’s talk about the good and the bad things about that, and what the consequences were.

    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 hundred years based on an empire that’s already 100 years old, and which many people saw as the blight of their lives.”

    It’s a view that will be welcomed as debates rage about the toppling of statues and the decolonialisation of museum collections. What’s important to Rodgers, ultimately, is that everyone, especially the local and national audience that will make up the majority of near-future visitors, feel that the museums are for them.

    “Opening it up — investigating, giving access, talking about things — doesn’t have to be as frightening as people seem to make it,” he says. “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.

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