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.”
Backbench Conservative MPs and peers form the Common Sense Group to protect British heritage from what they describe as the “woke agenda”.
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.