Our response to Oliver Dowden’s letter on contested heritage

The Museums Association (MA) welcomes the UK Government’s support for museums in England to date, in particular the Job Retention Scheme and the Culture Recovery Fund.

We agree with the Secretary of State’s comments in his recent letter to national museums and cultural bodies that statues and other historical objects “play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults” and that “we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety”.

The MA has been supporting museums to undertake this work and providing ethical guidance to our members. We would welcome an opportunity to discuss the issue with government.

However we are concerned that the Secretary of State’s recent letter asks museums to notify the government of any activities in this area; implies that government funding may be withheld if museums do not comply; and denies museums the responsibility to take carefully considered decisions about contested heritage in consultation with staff and their communities.

We feel that this contravenes the long-established principle that national museums and other bodies operate at arm’s length from government and are responsible primarily to their trustees.

The MA holds the widely respected Code of Ethics for Museums, which was created in consultation with a wide-range of museums and stakeholders and is aligned with the Arts Council England’s Accreditation scheme. Under the first principle of public benefit it states that museums should:

Ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation. Resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders.”

In these challenging times we believe that all museums must be able to make decisions relating to the care, presentation and interpretation of our cultural heritage in discussion with their communities. This principle is a vital factor in ensuring that museums build and retain public trust and act as responsible and responsive public institutions.

The MA is therefore:

Urging the UK Government to respect the arm’s-length principle for museums; and reminding our members across the UK that their responsibility under the Code of Ethics for Museums is to:

  • Provide public access to, and meaningful engagement with, museums, collections, and information about collections without discrimination.
  • Ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation. Resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders.

We appreciate that this is a sensitive issue. We welcome the government’s request for a virtual roundtable discussion with museums and ask that it takes the time to listen to our concerns that museums should be able to make considered ethical decisions on a case-by-case basis in consultation with their stakeholders and communities.

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