Art Fund backs MA call for government to respect arm’s-length principle

Charity echoes concerns about independence of sector
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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The Museum of the Home has come under government pressure over the future of its statue of slave trade beneficiary Robert Geffrye
The Museum of the Home has come under government pressure over the future of its statue of slave trade beneficiary Robert Geffrye Wikimedia Commons: Cmglee

The Art Fund has expressed support for the recent statement by the Museums Association (MA) calling on the government to "respect the arm's-length principle" regarding how contested history is dealt with by cultural institutions.

The MA statement was made in response to a letter sent by the secretary of state for culture, Oliver Dowden, to England's national institutions, which raised fears among museums about government interference.

Commenting on the situation this week, the Art Fund said: "In a recent letter to national museums and cultural bodies outlining the government's position on contested heritage, [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] secretary of state Oliver Dowden MP recognised that statues and historical objects 'play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults' and 'we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety'. We see many museums doing this, as they have always adapted to new and emerging issues, and we are proud to support museums and curators doing this important work through many of our funding programmes.

"However we share the concerns expressed by the MA in its response to the letter. The MA notes that the 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.'

"The MA is right to highlight the importance of the arm’s-length principle when it comes to national museums and cultural bodies addressing complex issues. We support the MA in calling on government to respect that fundamental principle. We also support the MA’s Code of Ethics, the first principle of which is that museums should 'ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation' and 'resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders'.

"We look forward to hearing about the outcomes of a planned roundtable with museums and government on this issue."

The Art Fund's statement comes amid growing concerns that the issue of contested heritage has become politicised in recent months, putting the editorial independence of the museum sector under pressure. Last week, the National Trust was rebuked by a number of MPs at a Westminster Hall debate for publishing a report on links to slavery and colonialism at its properties.

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