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Cash-Cow Art Loans in Abu Dhabi: What “Commercial Interests” of British Museum Would Be Harmed by Disclosure?

In my previous post about the British Museum’s collaboration with Abu Dhabi’s planned Zayed National Museum, I questioned why the amounts paid to the London institution for its art loans and professional consultations were “commercially sensitive,” exempting them from the disclosure requirements for public bodies under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.


Rendering of Zayed National Museum, designed by Norman Foster

Here, in full, is the reply I received today (in response to my query sent last week) from Olivia Rickman, acting head of the British Museum’s press office [emphasis added]:

The Museum is a public body under the terms of the UK Freedom of Information Act. The Act includes provisions to exempt the disclosure of information if it is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person.

The terms of the Museum’s contractual agreement with Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA-Abu Dhabi) and TDIC [Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company] are exempt from disclosure under Section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, which says that information is exempt if its disclosure under the Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).

The Museum’s commercial interests may be prejudiced, for example, where a disclosure would, or would be likely to have a detrimental impact on its commercial revenue or threaten its ability to obtain supplies or secure finance and may weaken its position in a competitive environment by revealing market-sensitive information or information of potential usefulness to its competitors.

I remain puzzled by the terminology that I’ve highlighted, above, which seems more applicable to a business enterprise than to a not-for-profit public entity. And who are the British Museum’s “competitors”? Other nonprofit museums? I thought they were colleagues.

The British Museum is certainly not alone among museums in declining to reveal how much money is extracted for art loans to other institutions. But, as I’ve frequently argued, museums lending to other museums should share collegially (as the British Museum frequently does), not exploit their holdings as cash cows at the expense of sister institutions—even very wealthy ones.

Organized as a public body, the British Museum’s legal mandate for transparency about its transactions is particularly strong.

Over to you, Martin Bailey.

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