Museums gear up for the Coronation – but are all voices being heard?
Across the country, museums are polishing their shiniest trinkets and hanging up the bunting to mark the coronation of King Charles III.
The celebrations will continue all weekend long, with live screenings of the coronation ceremony, exhibitions on coronations past, street parties, picnics, coronation crafts, and the Big Help Out, a UK-wide volunteering event on bank holiday Monday.
Many venues are cashing in on the appetite for chintzy royal memorabilia – among the museum retail highlights is a £25 handmade egg cup of the new king, on sale in the National Portrait Gallery’s online store. The handy item can also be used as a “salt pot, mini plant holder, jewellery bowl, or candle holder”.
But while museums have every right to participate in what is undoubtedly a historic occasion of huge significance, and no-one wishes to spoil a good party, it appears that few have set any space aside for those who have doubts about the idea of a hereditary monarchy.
The polls suggest that a sizeable chunk of museum audiences fit into that category. A recent survey by Savanta showed that support for the monarchy for all age groups below 45 has fallen below 50%, while the recent news that the public would be asked to swear allegiance to the King during the ceremony attracted widespread criticism.
However, even those institutions that aren't actively celebrating the occasion seem reluctant to address this. There is no reference to the Coronation in the programming or social media feeds of Manchester's People's History Museum, for example, even though it has an explicit remit to cover politics and democracy.
In the devolved nations, where the monarchy is even more of a divisive issue, national museums have remained noticeably silent about the whole event, with barely a mention of it to be found on the social media feeds of Amgueddfa Cymru-Museum Wales or National Museums NI.
Only National Museums Scotland has acknowledged the occasion, posting a thread on items in its collection linked to Scotland’s role in historic coronations.
The upcoming ceremony has also raised thorny questions about royal objects and collections. Buckingham Palace has decided not to use the Koh i Noor diamond in the crown of Queen Camilla after high-profile criticism from India, where calls are growing for the jewel to be repatriated. However, the Koh i Noor has been replaced with the Cullinan I diamond, which itself is seen as a symbol of the colonial exploitation of South Africa.
Closer to home, debate has raged about whether Scotland's Stone of Scone - which was stolen by England in the 13th century and only returned in 1996 - should have been allowed to travel from its present home in Stirling to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony, with the move criticised as symbolic of England's unequal relationship with Scotland.
Meanwhile a recent report in the Guardian explored how priceless treasures given to royals as official gifts had ended in the family's private ownership rather than the publicly accessible Royal Collection.
The monarchy is an institution that will continue to both unite and divide opinion for as long as it endures, and as a sector that relies on a significant amount of public funding, museums have a duty to give a balanced voice to all viewpoints. Once the bunting comes down and the celebratory mood wears off, they would do well to remember this.
The last time there was a coronation, the postwar consensus was intact and Britain still had an empire. This country and its standing in the world are now vastly different and one would expect a much wider range of attitudes to the monarchy. If we don’t debate these in our cultural heritage institutions, we’ll be failing in our mission to become more inclusive.
Republican voices during coronations is nothing new. Many trade unions boycotted the coronation of GVI, though little is reported on that today. Museums do have that difficult role in collecting and interpreting our contemporary history, it is almost inevitable that it is the retrospective voice that properly provides balance. Our role is to ensure that all those voices, from each side of the divide (and the couldn’t care less) is/are recorded.
This article is typical of how the MA seeks to denigrate rather than celebrate our history.