The government has finally published its guidance on how organisations should manage historic statues.
The document, described as “‘retain and explain’ guidance published to protect historic statues” by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), is designed to provide advice to “custodians facing calls for the removal of heritage assets in their care or ownership”.
The government said its “retain and explain” policy will see assets kept in place, accompanied by an explanation of their historical context.
The guidance applies to custodians of all public memorials, including statues, monuments and commemorations. The DCMS said it is not for collections held by museums and galleries, including objects on temporary or permanent display, or in storage.
The creation of the guidance follows consideration by academics and others involved in heritage who were part of a government-appointed Heritage Advisory Board that looked at how custodians should approach and manage requests for the removal of heritage assets such as statues.
The retain and explain policy has proved controversial ever since it was first suggested by the government in early 2021 following the toppling by protesters of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June 2020.
The removal of the Colston statue was part of a wider move to address the legacy of Britain’s colonial past, which can be seen on streets and buildings, as well as statues, plaques and other memorials.
The launch of the guidance has reignited debate around how this type of heritage should be dealt with.
Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, speaking on 5 October on BBC Radio 4, said: “I think in some cases [retain and explain] is entirely appropriate but there are other cases where my question is, why would you want a statue of a man who was a mass murderer or a slave trader on public display and it speaks to something fundamental – what are statues?
“Because what they're not, is history. What they are, is validation and memorialisation. Why do we want to say that these were great men when we know in many cases they were not?
“The problem I have with this guidance is not so much the guidance, though it is a very central government approach, rather than allowing local decision making, the problem I have is that it regurgitates two falsehoods. The first is that what the problem is with statues is modern attitudes changing, which implies that people approved of the statues and these men at the time, and that is often demonstrably untrue.
"And the other is that statues tell us our history – the advice says that removing heritage will limit our understanding of difficult parts of our history. Which statue can we point to that tells us about a difficult part of our history? They cannot teach us history. They are always silent about the victims and they are put up by tiny members of a male elite to celebrate the lives of other members of that tiny male elite.”
A number of organisations in the sector have cautiously welcomed the new government guidance on how to deal with commemorative heritage assets that have become contested.
A National Trust spokesperson said: “We welcome the clarification provided by the government’s new guidance, which we believe sets out a pragmatic approach. We support the principles for grounding decisions in research and evidence, making decisions on a case-by-case basis aware of context, undertaking appropriate consultation and proactively engaging through the listed building and planning system.”
A spokesperson for the National Lottery Heritage Fund said: “This guidance toolkit issued by DCMS will support heritage custodians faced with often-difficult decisions in deciding how to deal with heritage assets under debate.
“We don’t define heritage, and ask people to tell us what they think is important and should be preserved. Our history can teach us a great deal about ourselves and who we want to be, and we encourage people to explore, understand and learn from it.
“We encourage people to take advantage of the many publicly available resources, many of which we have funded, and to learn from our often complex and challenging past.”
The DMCS said it hopes the guidance will “help to avoid future occurrences of the hasty, forced, or ill-considered removal of contested assets”.
The guidance applies to any statue or monument accessible to the public in the local community that faces calls for its removal or relocation on the grounds of changing views about the people or events it commemorates. Decision-makers may include owners, trustees or board members with care and custody responsibility for the asset in question.
The starting point for the guidance is for custodians to comply with the government policy to “retain and explain” and keep assets in situ, but to complement them as necessary with a comprehensive “explanation”, which provides the whole story of the person or event depicted, so that a fuller understanding of the historic context can be known, understood and debated.
Culture secretary Lucy Frazer said: “History is nuanced and complex. It is full of grey areas, which is what makes it so interesting and, of course, there are times when statues and monuments depict people or events that we very much disapprove of today.
"At the same time, the UK has a proud history as an engine for progress, democracy and liberal values. That is why I want all our cultural institutions to resist being driven by any politics or agenda and to use their assets to educate and inform rather than to seek to erase the parts of our history that we are uncomfortable with.”
Heritage in the nations
With culture devolved in the UK, other nations have taken very different approaches to dealing with “contested” heritage.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government has sponsored a project that has made recommendations as to how the country’s involvement in empire, colonialism and historic slavery can be addressed using museum collections and museum spaces.
The recommendations from the Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums independent Steering Group, published in June 2022, build on existing work from within the equalities sector and from across Scotland’s museums, to explore the mechanisms of how the country can confront challenging histories within museum spaces.
In November 2020, the Welsh government published a report, The Slave Trade and the British Empire: An Audit of Commemoration in Wales. This provides a comprehensive list of people commemorated in Wales who were associated with the slave trade.
When the report was published, first minister Mark Drakeford said: “We need a clear understanding of the legacies of the slave trade and the British Empire […]
“This is not about rewriting our past or naming and shaming. It is about learning from events of the past. It is an opportunity for us to establish a mature relationship with our history and find a heritage which can be shared by us all.”