George Osborne has been appointed the next chair of the trustees of the British Museum, placing the former Conservative chancellor in one of the most prominent roles in UK culture.
Osborne will take over in October from Sir Richard Lambert, former editor of the Financial Times and ex-director of the CBI business lobby group, at the head of the board of trustees, who include prominent cultural figures such as Mary Beard and Grayson Perry.
His appointment to Britain’s best known museum comes amid a push by the Conservative government to influence opinion at the senior levels of Britain’s cultural institutions.
Osborne said: “All my life I have loved the British Museum. To my mind, it is quite simply the greatest museum in the world. It’s a place that brings cultures together and tells the story of our common humanity.”
Minouche Shafik, a deputy chair of the British Museum board of trustees, led the seven-person appointments committee. The museum said it “led an independent, open and thorough search process for a leader with a global perspective, with a demonstrable interest in culture and history”.
Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, was appointed deputy governor of the Bank of England in 2014 by Osborne during his time at the Treasury.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden, one-time deputy chief of staff to former prime minister David Cameron, was not involved in Osborne’s appointment at the British Museum but his colleagues said he warmly welcomed the announcement.
Osborne had “a lot of financial expertise”, said one ally of Dowden. “It’s important to have people like that running big arts institutions to help them recover from the pandemic.”
The British Museum is one of 15 national museums and galleries that receive funding directly from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, rather than arm’s length funding bodies such as Arts Council England.
The museum is planning a major overhaul of its buildings and displays under a 10-year master plan for which it has yet to disclose costs but will require substantial investment.
Sir Charles Saumarez Smith, former chief executive of the Royal Academy and a former director of the National Gallery, said: “There’s a good logic to the appointment of someone who knows their way round government. The former chancellor also knows his way round the Treasury.”
Osborne was last year in the running for the role of chair of the Royal Opera House, according to one person with knowledge of the appointment process, but he missed out to entrepreneur David Ross.
The British Museum, which opened in 1759, was the most popular visitor attraction in the UK in 2019, with 6.2m visits, according to VisitBritain, the British tourist authority.
Osborne will be grappling with heated issues ranging from demands for the restitution of contested objects, such as the Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles, to climate protests over its longstanding partnership with oil group BP.
One friend of Osborne said the former chancellor was “not about to become a culture warrior”, overseeing the removal of statues with colonial links. The friend added: “George will be very much a bulwark for the centrist establishment.”
However, Osborne’s appointment hardly reflects Dowden’s recently expressed desire to have a more diverse group of people running the UK’s cultural institutions.
Writing recently in the Sunday Telegraph, Dowden said it was important they were not “solely governed by people from metropolitan bubbles”.
Osborne attended the elite St Paul’s school in west London and then Oxford university before embarking on a career in Tory politics, which culminated in him serving as Cameron’s chancellor from 2010 to 2016.
He left parliament at the 2017 general election, and pursued a diverse range of jobs including financial services and journalism.
This year Osborne became a full time mergers and acquisitions banker by joining boutique UK advisory firm Robey Warshaw as a partner.
But he has reduced his roles by stepping down as editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard newspaper and relinquishing a part-time position at US fund manager BlackRock.
The BlackRock Investment Institute, headed by former Swiss central bank chief Philipp Hildebrand, hired Osborne in 2017 as a highly paid senior adviser. Hildebrand is a member of the British Museum’s board of trustees.