The announcement of a government summit on contested history has raised alarm bells over the editorial integrity of the sector.
Organised by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the 23 February roundtable will bring together the leaders of 25 heritage bodies in England “to discuss contested heritage and how to put the ‘retain and explain’ policy into practice”.
A full list of attendees is yet to be released but the summit will include national museums, arm’s length funding bodies and other heritage organisations such as the National Trust.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, culture secretary Oliver Dowden wrote in a letter to the Common Sense Group of Conservative backbenchers that “whilst I agree that we should use heritage to educate people about Britain’s rich and complex history, this work should never be driven be ideology”.
He added: “Proud and confident nations face their past squarely; they do not seek to run from or airbrush the history upon which they are founded.
“History is ridden with moral complexity, and interpreting Britain's past should not be an excuse to tell an overly-simplistic version of our national story, in which we damn the faults of previous generations whilst forgetting their many great achievements. Purging uncomfortable elements of our past does nothing but damage our understanding of it.”
A DCMS source told the paper that Dowden is aiming to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.
It is the latest in a series of government interventions on the issue of contested heritage that have come since the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol last June, which led to a heated debate on how British history is represented in the public realm.
In October, Dowden wrote to national museums and arm’s length heritage bodies warning that they should be consistent with the government’s position on the issue and notify the department of actions or public statements they were planning to make regarding contested heritage. The letter implied that failure to comply could put government funding for the sector at risk.
Meanwhile the communities secretary Robert Jenrick recently outlined tougher rules to protect statues and monuments and make the government’s “retain and explain” approach part of national planning policy.
The rules, which will oblige public bodies to seek planning permission for changes to any monuments, plaques or statues – with the possibility of a government veto – are currently open for public consultation.
There is growing concern among heritage professionals that inflammatory rhetoric on the issue is having a chilling effect on academic research and editorial freedom.
University of Leicester professor Corinne Fowler, who co-wrote the National Trust’s September 2020 report on slavery and colonialism, told Museums Journal that she has received hundreds of threats after being singled out for criticism by MPs and columnists as a result of her work.
Fowler said: “We need to defend the freedom to research our histories in all their nuance, being careful not to confuse nationalism with historical evidence. We need to hold the line: timidity only encourages hostile coverage, presumably in the hope of pressuring organisations to cancel more projects along the same lines.”
The Museums Association’s director Sharon Heal said the association would continue to “unreservedly support” decolonisation initiatives and urged museums to uphold Code of Ethics guidelines on editorial integrity.
Heal said: “It seems odd to be prioritising this now when so many who work in museum and heritage are focusing on recovery and welcoming our communities safely back into our venues. However we would remind everyone that the Code of Ethics clearly states that we should ensure editorial integrity and resist attempts to influence content and interpretation by interest groups, including funders.
“Decolonisation is not simply the relocation of a statue or an object; it is a long-term process that seeks to recognise the legacy of empire in British museums and is about including new voices and narratives. We unreservedly support initiatives to decolonise museums and their collections and will continue our work with our Decolonisation Guidance Working Group to provide support for the sector.”