There is growing concern in the museum sector about government overreach following Oliver Dowden’s letter to national museums last week on contested heritage.
In the letter, which was sent to national museums in England and other arm’s length bodies such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the culture secretary said that publicly funded bodies should align with the UK Government’s stance on contested heritage – a subject that has led to heated debate since protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in June.
Dowden said that the government did not “support the removal of statues or other similar objects” and told recipients that he “would expect arm’s length bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position”. He warned that they “should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics”.
“It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question,” he added, saying this was “especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised”.
The culture secretary said arm’s length bodies would be asked to complete a questionnaire on the work they are considering or undertaking in this area, and told them they must “continue to notify the department in advance of any actions or public statements in relation to contested heritage or histories”.
The letter is the latest in a series of interventions from the culture secretary that have led to fears the government is undermining the sector’s independence.
In August, Dowden wrote to national museums instructing them to cut executive pay, while internal emails show that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) leaned on the Museum of the Home before its board decided not to remove a statue of slave trade beneficiary Robert Geffrye.
Dowden and other government figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg have also been highly critical of the National Trust’s recent report examining the links to slavery and colonialism at its properties.
“Museums are nervous about the whole situation,” said one professional, who added that it felt as if the government was trying to draw the sector into a "culture war".
“This is a serious intervention on an already sensitive issue at a time of severe financial crisis for the sector. Museums are losing an enormous amount of income and then dealing with a government that wants to prescribe what they can and can’t do, and make emergency funding conditional on that.”
A number of museum professionals and organisations have publicly expressed concern about the letter.
Roy Clare, former director of the National Maritime Museum, wrote on Twitter: “This represents seriously shocking interference by the government. ‘Arm’s-length’ should mean exactly what it says. When politicians turn curator and threaten cultural and arts bodies the slope isn’t just slippery, it’s an avalanche.”
In a response to the letter, the Museums Association (MA) urged the government to “respect the arm’s-length principle for museums”.
It wrote: “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 emphasised museums’ responsibilities under its Code of Ethics to “ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation [and] resist attempts to influence interpretation or content”.
Those working in the sector also pointed out that the intervention could complicate everyday decision-making about displays and objects, which are rearranged frequently for a variety of reasons.
“Curating items in museums, including rearranging, storing and displaying, is integral to museum work, and contested objects remain both in our stores and on display,” said one curator.
“Storing objects is sometimes necessary for their care, but also to balance displays to encourage diverse and representative stories and refreshed displays.”
Dowden has invited museum stakeholders to an online roundtable for an “open discussion” about the government’s position, its practical implications, and how DCMS can collaborate with the sector going forward.