Design Museum chief forced out after clash with Conran

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The Independent Online

The former director of the Design Museum was forced to resign after clashing with its founder over plans for an overhaul of the institution.

Alice Rawsthorn, who stood down as director last week, was critical of proposals to link the Thamesside museum to a proposed Centre of Excellence for Creativity and Innovation to be set up with government funds, a senior design industry source said.

The new centre is the brainchild of the Cox Review, led by Sir George Cox, the chairman of the Design Council. Sir Terence Conran, who founded the Design Museum 18 years ago and is now a trustee, backs the initiative, but Ms Rawsthorn fears the museum's distinctive profile and independence will be lost.

As a result of her opposition, she was called before the museum's board of trustees on Thursday and asked to resign, the source said. "There's been talk in the design industry about Alice saying she did not want her museum to become involved in the initiative in any way. She was dead against it. Terence was asked and he said he did want to get involved. There was a trustees meeting and they asked her to resign."

Her departure came as a surprise to the industry and those who had seen her at a design community dinner earlier in the week. But tensions had been building over the past few years, he said.

"Alice has always been controversial. Sir Terence did not like her curatorially or her attitude. She was head-strong and didn't listen to anyone. She is said to have run the museum like her own personal fiefdom and put on exhibitions by florists and shoe designers," the source said.

Stephen Bayley, who was the museum's first director in 1989, said: "I know Terence Conran and Alice have not been seeing eye to eye for a long time." Ms Rawsthorn had clashed with the museum's former chairman, James Dyson, who left in 2004, having accused her of prioritising visual above industrial design. Sir Terence reportedly threatened to cut ties with the museum in support of Mr Dyson.

Sir Terence sat on a steering committee connected to the Cox Review beside Sir Norman Foster, the architect, and Sir Nicholas Serota, the Tate director, and is enthusiastic about the project.

"To give the UK the world's leading museum for design - recognised and admired around the world - would be an incredibly positive way to build on the success of the Design Museum which is now too small to do all the exciting things that we want to achieve in the future," Sir Terence said.

But Marcus Fairs, the editor of Icon, a monthly design magazine, said it would be "tragic" if this meant that the Design Museum would be "sacrificed to create a new institution with a broader and more of a government driven remit."

A proposed £50m relocation and expansion project, to be completed by 2012, would not mean the death of the museum or a merger, a spokeswoman said

"We have discussed the Cox report with George Cox and are supportive of his recommendations. We believe that the new Design Museum can fulfil a significant part of his recommendations but believe that it needs to be an independent institution run as a museum and true to its roots and mission - if it is to be the world's leading museum of design."

In the five years of Ms Rawsthorn's directorship, the number of visitors has increased by 40 per cent to more than 250,000 in 2005, and educational visits have doubled.