March 3, 2020

Mary Beard was vetoed as British Museum trustee for her politics


Mary Beard, the famed classicist, Cambridge don, and author of reader favorites like SPQR and Women & Power was rejected by the UK government as an appointee to the board of trustees of the British Museum.

Downing Street doesn’t wield its veto often, and the three other candidates proposed by the museum were accepted. However, Mary Beard has been a public anti-Brexit “Remainer” who often voices her pro-EU sentiments on social media.

Most colleagues and observers have connected the dots: it appears that an academic’s appointment to a position for which she was amply qualified was denied because of her political views.

The Guardian quotes Beard saying: “There are cock-ups and conspiracies. I’m not, however, going to diss Boris Johnson or the Department of Culture.”

Meanwhile, a former trustee, Sir John Tusa, is much less muted in the same article: “This is an absolute scandal. The trustees of the British Museum exist to protect its intellectual, academic and political independence. Government interference in putting in placemen or placewomen is a corruption of public life. Will any Remainer now expect to be punished by the government?”

Another former board member who opted to stay anonymous is quoted saying: “The decision to reject her is more about political correctness than respected classical scholarship.”

So that seems fairly unambiguous and horrifying.

It’s important to remember, though, that our dystopian world is not just relentlessly bleak and cynical—it also has a taste for the absurd. The Guardian helpfully reminds us that Beard has come into close contact with the current resident of 10 Downing Street before; she once beat Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a debate. As they tell it:

Four years ago, Johnson and Beard faced each other in a debate organised by the media events company Intelligence Squared. Johnson took the Greek side while Beard argued for the Romans. Before the discussion, the audience voted that Greece had given more to civilisation. But during the discussion, in which the then mayor of London called the Romans “a very nasty bunch,” Beard gradually swayed the audience, and, at the end, a vote was taken, with a victory for the Romans and Beard.

Before we get carried away with fantasies of a deep, festering wound in the realms of classics causing this scandal, the Guardian also notes that the decision to reject Beard “is believed to have happened at the end of Theresa May’s premiership.”

Still though … makes you want to be wary of every man you’ve beaten in an argument. Women & Power indeed.



Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.