‘Polite but managed’ summit fails to allay concerns about government overreach
Concerns remain about editorial independence in museums following a summit between the UK Government and England’s heritage bodies this week.
Organised by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the 23 February meeting brought together England’s national museums and arm’s length heritage bodies, as well as charities such as the National Trust and the Landmark Trust. A full list of attendees has not been released.
The summit was called after months of heightened rhetoric on the question of how Britain's imperial history should be dealt with in the public realm. Museums Journal understands that the meeting was “polite but managed”, with little back-and-forth discussion and no opportunity for questions at the end.
Institutions were reminded that they should remain impartial and not be beholden to a “vocal minority”, and it was agreed that a working group would be formed to develop guidance on putting the government’s “retain and explain” policy on contested history into practice.
However, Museums Journal understands that there is concern among institutions that official guidance from government on editorial or academic matters would breach the arm’s length principle, as well as putting certain topics off-limits because of fears that funding will be affected.
Following the meeting, Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association (MA) – which was not in attendance – said: “The arm’s length principle and Code of Ethics are clear; it is not for ministers to impose what constitutes a legitimate subject for investigation or what the outcome of that research might be.”
Heal warned of a “climate of fear” among museum and heritage staff, a number of whom have faced intense criticism in the press, government and social media as the debate has raged over contested heritage.
She said: “We support the rights of everyone working on these issues to do so free of interference, threats and intimidation. We will continue to support the work of the Decolonisation Guidance Working Group and to produce advice and support for individuals and institutions that want to reexamine the impact and legacy of slavery and empire in our collections and institutions.”
The heads of several cultural institutions have signalled their support for the government’s position. The Science Museum Group’s chief executive, Ian Blatchford, wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “I’m happy to report that the importance of independence was underlined, not undermined at the meeting. There is no desire to meddle in the thousands of curatorial decisions that museums make every day.”
Blatchford added: “We should not be at the beck and call of every loud voice, or rush to change our museums at the first sign of complaint from a particular lobby, and we should steer clear of political activism.”
The chair of the Museum of the Home, Samir Shah, said the secretary of state's intervention “was completely justified”.
A DCMS spokesman said: “This was a very useful conversation about how we work together to protect our heritage for future generations. We will now set up a working group to produce national guidelines on how culture and heritage bodies can put the government's 'retain and explain' policy into practice, so that more people can engage in our shared past.”
Black Lives Matters protestors topple a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, sparking a fierce debate about heritage in the public realm. The Museum of London Docklands removes a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan shortly afterwards.
Museum of the Home trustees decide to leave a statue of another slave trade beneficiary, Robert Geffrye, in place, leading to public protests. It later emerges that government officials put pressure on the institution to retain the statue.
Backbench Conservative MPs and peers form the Common Sense Group to protect British heritage from what they describe as the “woke agenda”.
The National Trust releases a report on slavery and colonialism at its properties. The report is heavily criticised by the Common Sense Group and the press, and leads to parliamentary debates about whether the research breached the trust’s charitable purpose.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden writes to national museums and other arm’s length bodies to tell them that they should “be consistent with the government’s position” on contested heritage, particularly at a time when funding decisions are under scrutiny. Meanwhile the head of the Charity Commission, Tina Stowell, warns charities to “be careful” about straying into divisive political issues.
Tougher rules are introduced requiring planning permission to be sought for the removal or alteration of statues, plaques and monuments. The communities secretary says that the “retain and explain” approach to contested heritage now forms part of national planning policy.
England’s heritage bodies are summoned to meet culture secretary Oliver Dowden. They agree to create national guidance on the government’s “retain and explain” policy.
The bullying tactics of the Empire-admiring right are unfortunately being pretty successful in weakening the resolve of some museums and heritage organisations to introduce more nuanced interpretations of the past. It’s not only the Geffrye Museum Trustees that have chosen to calm the tempers of Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph readers rather than to change in order to appeal to younger and more diverse audiences. I know of at least two heritage organisations that have decided to slow down and reduce the ambition of their reinterpretation work, and I expect there are more. Many junior staff want to continue the work, and after Black Lives Matter have a sense of urgency, but trustees and senior managers are too concerned about negative reactions from Tory politicians and fearful of complaints by a vociferous minority in their current audiences. They need to accept that progressive change inevitably means that they won’t carry some of their existing audiences with them. But they will broaden their appeal into new audiences.
The supermarkets came together to show support for the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert, also attacked by the racist right. The Royal Horticultural Society and Kew Gardens both spoke up to defend James Wong when he was targeted by the right. In comparison, leading museums and heritage organisations appear weak. To not stand up against racism and censorship is to condone it. To appear weak will encourage further bullying by the right.