As a political construct, the UK is failing. Its postwar cultural assumptions and compromises have finally been overwhelmed by multiple emergencies – the destruction of nature, inequalities, the pandemic, poverty and the undermining of democracy by populist politicians.
The Black Lives Matter movement has challenged cultural institutions to address their embedded structural racism. Many museums across the world have issued strong public statements of support, and committed to change their practices.
In Wales, first minister Mark Drakeford has been a driving force for key initiatives to address the historical legacies of slavery. Soon after the murder of George Floyd, Drakeford commissioned an audit of Wales’ historic monuments, buildings and street names. The report provides a list of people commemorated in Wales who were associated with the slave trade or with crimes against Black people.
The Welsh government has commissioned a report on the teaching in schools of the histories and experiences of Black communities. It has also published a draft Race Equality Action Plan, and has allocated £600,000 to change the representation in museums of the Black contribution to Wales’s development.
Contrast this with the attempts by Oliver Dowden, the culture minister in England, to control the location and interpretation of contested historical artefacts connected with slavery and empire. In responding to the letter Dowden sent to national museums and cultural bodies about the issue, the Museums Association was among those raising concerns that this contravenes the principle that national museums and other bodies operate at arm’s length from government, but too many other museum leaders have responded to this threat to their independence with silence or even enthusiasm.
In February, Irish president Michael D Higgins urged the UK and Ireland to engage in an exercise of ethical remembering. “A feigned amnesia around the uncomfortable aspects of our shared history will not help us to forge a better future together,” he wrote in the Guardian. “While it has been vital for our purposes in Ireland to examine nationalism, doing the same for imperialism is equally important, and has significance far beyond British/Irish relations.”
After years of avoiding the issue of the British empire and colonialism, in which landowners, ship owners and traders in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were actively engaged, we in museums should perhaps recognise that, on this crucial issue, we are no longer one unified sector.
At the heart of this debate is an ethical question that can no longer be evaded. As institutions of public memory, are we willing to publicly acknowledge the historical crimes committed by the British empire, from which our nations’ economies still benefit? Will we honour the promises many made last year to work to remove the structural inequalities minority groups face in museums?
If not, the growing tensions between the government-compliant museums in England, and museums across the four nations that strongly reject their position, may become a permanent schism.
David Anderson is the director general of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales