THE MEETING of the trustees of the Museum of the British Empire and Commonwealth last Wednesday opened with a minute's silence, in respect for the memory of Arthur Drew. Drew had been their first chairman. It was typical of his generosity of spirit and his private enthusiasms to take on such a daunting task. But there must have been at least six, and probably more, similar meetings in other institutions which would have provoked a further tribute to his memory.
Drew achieved very considerable success in his chosen career as a civil servant, while making remarkably few enemies. He was promoted to Principal to the War Office after less than three years as Assistant Principal, when the informal period required was 13 years. Colleagues from those years invariably deploy the words kind, capable and enthusiastic. Those of us who never encountered him in that role had no difficulty in seeing in him elements of Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister: he had broad administrative talent, he was eminently sensible, he could even be charmingly devious when necessary. But above all, he was a realist. Whitehall had taught him, if nothing else, how to make a shrewd assessment of what was actually obtainable. This meant that he was happy to pursue his aims in a relaxed way by any one of a number of different routes. Above all, he was a good listener.
Watching a barn owl the other day - sitting apparently motionless, surveying his territory while to all intents asleep, but at the faintest rustle in the grass swivelling his head through 90 degrees or more and pouncing on his prey - brought to mind irresistible memories of Drew's presence on a committee. Behind an impassive exterior, a highly efficient system reacted to anything and everything of interest. This inscrutability was enhanced by an ironical cast of mind and a distinct taste for innocent mischief-making which meant that his real views tended to arrive in coded format.
When Drew came to retire from Whitehall in 1972 his life became busier than ever. His protestations for a liking for a life of ease and idleness were, of course, greatly exaggerated. Drew had a well-stocked mind, highly cultivated tastes and although in his early sixties, he was extremely energetic. A senior colleague, who met him for the first time during the Suez crisis, was greatly struck by the fact that he displayed a classical text prominently on his desk. His interest in the past was genuine, and he understood well the link between history and the present which is the world of museums. In this world, after theoretical retirement, he made a contribution quite as important as any he made at the War Office in taking on the old Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries as chairman and making something altogether more impressive out of it.
He inherited a purely advisory body, and handed over to his successor a partly executive agency, a kind of small-scale Arts Council. Making something manageable and effective out of the enormously varied museum landscape must have resembled tackling several Chinese box puzzles simultaneously. By taking it slowly and gently, Drew got pretty much what he wanted. His 'Drew Report' (A Framework For Museums, 1978) incorporated most of the ideals that his colleagues wanted for museums. Drew was almost certainly aware that its demands would be quickly snuffed out by the Treasury's normal policy of benign neglect although, as he pointed out, the total cost of implementing all the report's suggestions would amount to no more than the cost of a few miles of rural motorway. However, in putting forward this anthology of ideal aims, he won the trust of museums and he was then able quietly and slowly to make real progress in achieving what he had probably always thought was the maximum that was attainable.
The politicians he worked with at the highest level (who ranged from John Profumo and Sir John Grigg to Emmanuel Shinwell) would have recognised in that the same skills of tact, urbanity and detachment which he had deployed in his days dealing with the temperamental service prima donnas at the War Office and the Ministry of Defence.
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