The departure of Boris Johnson as prime minister in September was inconvenient for Sir Ian Blatchford. As chief executive of the Science Museum Group for more than a decade, about 40 per cent of his funding comes from the state, and building relationships with those at the centre of government is a priority.

“I had built up connections with this extraordinary array of people at No 10 [Downing Street],” he says. Contact details of the entire Johnson team went from “gold dust to zero” overnight. After completing what he calls a long summer of goodbyes, he had to start again with Johnson’s successor Liz Truss. But then the prime minister changed again.

“Whitehall is a great machine but sometimes you need a certain insider’s mobile [number] to unlock ideas and decisions that have become stuck, as lots of intelligent people send things in circular motion,” says the 57-year-old Blatchford.

“I am now getting to know the Sunak-Hunt circles,” he says, adding that each change in prime minister or chancellor leads to people changes he needs to be on top of. “It is essential to know all the invisible power brokers.”

And “if you want to get things done in Whitehall you need to be both logical and also quite pushy. And sometimes you need to just lose it a bit and get an ally.”

Despite this, ties with the government have been weakening. Being what he calls a “rainmaker” has become a bigger part of the job, courting philanthropists and private corporations whose cash finances projects that display how science is applied to industry and everyday life. “The direction of travel has been firmly moving towards greater self-reliance,” he says.

But blockbuster exhibitions can cost as much as £5mn. “My organisation is bursting with creative ideas . . . but the difficulty is matching that with resources.” 

The group oversees the landmark museum in South Kensington, the National Railway Museum in York and three sites in the north of England. Total number of visits to London’s Science Museum fell by 93 per cent when it was forced to shut its doors during the pandemic. According to the group’s annual report, their key measure of income fell by almost 80 per cent to £7.1mn. Covid-19 restrictions made fundraising “particularly challenging and created a hugely uncertain financial environment”, the report said.

While Blatchford did not miss the excessive international travel of his pre-Covid life, the coronavirus crisis only added to mounting pressure. Arts and cultural institutions have had to scrutinise their funding sources more heavily, particularly from those donors who make their money through the selling of arms, fossil fuels or opioids. “Squaring the financial need and the ethical framework gets harder and harder and harder,” Blatchford says.

The Science Museum has come under fire for accepting money from oil and gas producer BP. Many environmental activists believe fossil fuel companies are greenwashing their corporate activities through such initiatives. Yet often, big banks, legal and professional services firms that facilitate the same fossil fuel projects are not targeted in the same way, exposing the complexities of the debate.

It frustrates Blatchford, who believes the debate in the sector is often out of touch with reality. “Business and finance is so complex and intertwined. There’s a danger that if the arts world is not careful, it will be eaten alive by its own piety . . . at times it’s become almost alarming,” he says.

That is not to say the group prioritises fundraising over all else. Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses were a factor that led the body to decline funds from a consortium that included the country’s state energy giant Saudi Aramco, one of the world’s biggest oil producers.

Blatchford believes BP is different. Not only does it fund research into green technologies, he says, but most importantly it is a publicly listed company whose corporate strategy is under scrutiny from investors. A push to delegitimise such companies will only drive fossil fuel activities further into the private sphere which operates in the shadows, says Blatchford. “I think it’s important to kind of just press the pause button on that tape and say, where is this going to take us?”

Blatchford says his commercial past was crucial to helping him navigate the role. “I am totally relaxed about being around rich people, which is not always true of arts people. I don’t have any problem with wealth at all . . . I really enjoy meeting people who have made great successes of their lives.”

Blatchford undertook what he calls a portfolio career, which was unusual for a man of his generation. After studying law at Oxford university’s Mansfield College, he went to work in the City of London, first at the Bank of England in international regulation, and then in mergers and acquisitions at Barclays de Zoete Wedd.

“In the 1980s, being a banker was a hero job . . . people can’t believe that now. But actually at the time of the big bang, all of us went into that world,” he says.

But he had a creative side and there were things about banking that he found “irritating”. “The fact it was so remorselessly macho in a way that is actually just kind of tedious,” he adds. “Long hours, just for the sake of it.”

Blatchford transferred his skills to the Arts Council and later to the Royal Academy of Arts and the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he took on roles as the director of finance. He was appointed in 2010 to the head of the Science Museum Group by David Cameron, then prime minister.

Exhibitions have to be planned years in advance yet still remain relevant. The museum is known for exhibitions including humankind’s ever-changing relationship with the sun, superbugs and their resistance to antibiotics, robots and disinformation.

Blatchford, like his peers at other big institutions, has become embroiled in the culture wars, attacked by both the right and the left — on issues from environmental politics and the trans debate to the colonial legacy of such institutions, and the largely white composition of their workforces.

“It’s so easy to be sent into a panic by the noise, by Twitter feeds, by social media trends,” he adds. He avoids all social media, believing it to be complicit in “destroying your sanity”.

As with all business leaders today, he is under huge pressure to always do the right thing. Blatchford, who made his 50th trip to Russia at the start of 2020, handed back his Pushkin medal after the country invaded Ukraine. Awarded to citizens and foreigners for achievements in the arts and culture, he said at the time: “I cannot keep a medal that was handed out in the name of the Russian state by Vladimir Putin, who is responsible for this war.”

Three questions for Ian Blatchford

Who is your leadership hero? David Gordon, the former chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts. I was his financial director: [he was] entrepreneurial, shockingly funny, supportive, but also knew when to kick me in the shins if he sensed I could do even better. He appointed me when I was only 30 to an organisation that was on the brink of insolvency.

What was your first leadership lesson? When I was deputy director of the V&A, the HR director died very suddenly — he was a great personal friend but his teams wanted to know what would happen next operationally, even though that seemed heartless to me, and had no interest in my grief. Despite all the trendy talk of collaborative leadership, the truth is most people expect the boss to have the right answers and protect them.

What would you be doing if you weren’t running the Science Museum Group? Depends on my mood. Either a regius professor of history somewhere grand, or a quietly wealthy banker with an awesome art collection.

But he does not always side with the popular opinion of the time. He feels strongly against the movement to tear down statues in the UK. Sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police in the US, demonstrators in Bristol protesting against racial inequality tore down a statue of a slave trader and threw it into the harbour. “‘Cancelling’ history is anathema to the way we work”, he said in an opinion piece in The Telegraph newspaper last year. “Our approach should be about additions not subtractions.”

Blatchford is not setting out to please everyone, believing people will respect — even “grudgingly” — a well-thought-through decision. But he also points out that people make a whole series of establishment assumptions about him. “I’m a white man with a knighthood and quite formal in the way I do things,” he says. But he adds he is also a gay man with a Jewish husband, which he believes gives him a sensitivity to the diversity agenda. “I really get otherness. Of course I do.”

He faced criticism for not publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign. “Showboating”, however, “turns my stomach”, he says. Blatchford adds that he’s a believer in “deeds, not words”. 

More important, he says, is not only overhauling recruitment processes but also creating new directorships open to only people with ethnically diverse backgrounds, which has drawn separate criticism. Inevitably, when curators have made appointments of non-traditional candidates, some of those hires do not work out, which causes people to “panic”. 

“We’ve been hiring second-rate men for 2,000 years,” says Blatchford. It’s not about making the “perfect hire” it’s about finding opportunities for a diverse pool of candidates — from race to gender and social class, he adds.

Blatchford often turns to business leaders for advice. Marjorie Scardino, the former chief executive of Pearson (former owner of the Financial Times), gave him a tip that has been key to his leadership. “She said, ‘The moment you become chief executive, people will cease to tell you the truth and that is the greatest risk.’” Dissenting voices need to be heard.

One of the trickier aspects of his role is how to navigate boardroom psychology. “Boards are vital to our lives, but they can drive every chief executive absolutely round the bend,” says Blatchford. Giving board directors more options and getting supportive voices heard in meetings has been crucial. “It’s the one thing about being a boss that no one ever trains you for . . . managing upwards is an astonishingly difficult skill.”

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