Last week, a meeting between twenty-five UK heritage groups and the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, highlighted concerns over potentially harmful interference by the government in the vital work of museums. It’s the latest in a series of push-backs from the government against renewed interest in re-evaluating British history.
In a statement after the meeting, the Museums Association said ‘it is not for ministers to dictate what constitutes a legitimate subject for investigation’, and that the sector should ‘should operate at arm’s length from the government’.
The MA describes a growing ‘climate of fear’ within museums and their staff, particularly when it comes to research of British imperialism
This contests Dowden’s hopes for a ‘retain and explain policy’ to be put into practice. Such a policy has been a talking point since numerous high-profile statues were torn down or covered up across the UK last year, such as that of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, in response to their destructive and exploitative legacies.
In their statement, the MA describes a growing ‘climate of fear’ within museums and their staff, particularly when it comes to research of British imperialism. This is hardly surprising when considering that last year Dowden threatened, in a leaked letter, to cut public funding from museums if they removed artefacts from display because of their ‘controversial’ past.
As may seem clear, Dowden’s and the government’s stance on the issue of so-called contested heritage diverges greatly from the goals stated by many museums and heritage bodies across the UK. Organisations such as the National Trust have actively reported on the connections almost 100 of their properties have to ‘colonialism and historic slavery’, for example.
a government wilfully, worryingly out of touch with both this nation’s past and its global implications, and the interests of the public it purports to serve
In contrast, the Culture Secretary called for ‘more rounded’ views of UK history – a phrase that makes plain the government’s hope for a greatest hits version of history that is smooth and pleasant. These attempts to suppress constructive revisions of British history by editorially independent museums exhibit a government wilfully, worryingly out of touch with both this nation’s past and its global implications, and the interests of the public it purports to serve.
The purpose of modern museums should be to educate the public through its research and collections, not to mould them to further officially-sanctioned narratives. For example, to think of Winston Churchill as simply a great hero, and not acknowledge the bloodshed and famine that he is responsible for, would reduce museums – and his home, currently NT property – to little more than sites for myth-making.
In a previous statement from the MA, there is mention of the museums sector risking being dragged into a ‘culture war’ due to the government’s manoeuvres. The language surrounding this issue does indeed hint at this being a risk. Take Sir Ian Blatchford’s Telegraph article discussing ‘cancelling history’ – a disappointing choice of soundbite from the chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council that can only dilute any meaningful point he is trying to make.
Ultimately, the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport has stressed that museums’ independence is not in question. However, the pressure that the likes of Oliver Dowden are placing on independent institutions such as the British Museum can only serve to make researchers and staff, who want to make a worthwhile contribution to the way British history is viewed, feel that their own government is working against them.
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