As London’s museums and galleries welcome visitors back, behind the scenes an almighty political row is going on. It centres on what the Government is calling a “culture war” but what others such as the Pitt Rivers Museum curator Dan Hicks call “a concerted attempt to whip up moral panic” over contested heritage. In the past month alone there have been three high-profile departures, at the Royal Museums Greenwich, the Science Museum and the National Trust.
The tension centres on the response to a rethinking of how colonial history is presented. “Retain and explain” is the Government’s response to calls to take down monuments such as the statue of merchant Robert Geffrye outside the Museum of the Home. But some in the museum world say the problem is not from the decolonisers, who can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but from a Government who seem eager to pour fuel on the fire. DCMS sources describe the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden as determined to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists trying to do Britain down”.
There are those who believe the politicians think a forthright appeal to patriotism goes down well with voters and there are concerns over what is perceived to be Boris Johnson’s drive to reshape opinion on the boards of museums, galleries and media groups by easing out dissenting voices and appointing trustees more aligned with Tory policy. A DCMS spokesperson says: “We are committed to ensuring our publicly funded bodies reflect the full diversity of the taxpayers they serve. All reappointments are considered in line with the Governance Code for Public Appointments. There is no automatic presumption of reappointment, and indeed, in the vast majority of cases, fresh talent is added with new appointments made.” Dowden told the Standard this week that we need a long-term perspective, which reflects the whole country but his approach has been divisive.
The latest departure is Tim Parker, who is stepping down as Chairman of the National Trust. Some members are furious at what they call the organisation’s woke agenda and want a Chairman whose views are more in line with theirs. Parker’s opponents in the National Trust did not stop to celebrate his departure before moving on to their next target — director-general Helen McGrady. Her opponents accuse her of turning the trust “into a Left-wing front organisation”.
This is just one of many internal battles across the country as the British Government comes out fighting against those who they term the woke warriors. This attitude does not sit well with some who feel they are being used as a political football, although one museum head says it is inevitable: “Governments think short-term, about headlines and elections. Museums think in terms of thousands of years of history. Those views are bound to clash but it is fair to say that a different government probably wouldn’t have relished the row quite so much.”
One former DCMS staffer says he thinks this controversy risks putting off potential trustees from black and Asian backgrounds. He said: “There will be brilliant people who lose out on roles and there will be more resignations. I know there are people, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds, who won’t apply for trustee roles under the current Government and Culture Secretary.”
The Government’s defenders point to figures such as journalist Kavita Puri who is a trustee at the V&A, Tate trustee Farooq Chaudhry and Delroy Beverley at the British Library as proof that the boards of our great artistic institutions are not as white as some people assume. But since he was appointed in February last year, Dowden has also appointed some people who are likely to be more sympathetic to his views. This month, Dowden nominated Robbie Gibb, a former No 10 director of communications, to the BBC board and recruitment process for the new chair of Ofcom is beginning again after the panel marked down frontrunner Paul Dacre. An independent assessment panel found the former editor of the Daily Mail to be “not appointable” but the government has insisted on a re-run of the contest.
The Royal Opera House is also in flux. Millionaire businessman David Ross has stepped down as its chairman a few months into what should have been a four-year term to concentrate on his job at the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a Tory donor and it is this crossover that concerns people.
Former Science Museum trustee Sarah Dry is one of those who has resigned over the current climate. “Today it is contested heritage. Tomorrow it may be another issue. This has several damaging effects,” she said when she withdrew her reappointment application from the Science Museum Group after being asked to “express support” for the Government’s policy of opposing the removal of contentious objects from collections. There are similarities with the departure of Sir Charles Dunstone as chairman of the Royal Museums Greenwich and the Government’s veto of fellow trustee Aminul Hoque, an expert in multicultural Britain. “Several other trustees discussed resigning in solidarity but that would just allow the Government to put more of its own people in,” says an insider.
The debate crystallised with the publication of Hicks’s work The Brutish Museums. The book calls for the return of the Benin bronzes in the British Museum as part of “a project of addressing the outstanding debt of colonialism”.
The bronzes have become the most visible symbol of this struggle but it goes far beyond them. Two years ago the National Army Museum handed over locks of hair cut from the dead body of Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II who killed himself when the British invaded in 1868 while the V&A is in discussions about the potential return of other treasures taken at the same time including a crown and a royal wedding dress.
The pressure on museums to at the very least be honest about the origin of some of their collection and at most to return items can also be seen at the British Museum whose director Hartwig Fischer goes out of his way to describe the Bloomsbury institution as “a world museum” – a not so subtle rebrand and attempt to paint the BM as a trusted custodian of international culture rather than a depository for contested treasures.
Hicks is concerned that a practical effect of the “incoherent and unsustainable” approach would be to make museums less attractive to visitors. He adds that the culture wars are “in reality a sustained attack on Britain’s world-leading arts, culture and educational sectors, whether around questions of equality, or the history of empire, or the bureaucratic processes of listed building consent. When threats are made to cut funding, interfere with curatorial freedom, and oaths of allegiance to current government policy are reportedly expected of museum trustees, there is a chilling effect.”
These rows come when museums are struggling in other ways too. Starved of visitors during the pandemic, organisations went online and in the process tapped into a new international audience willing to spend money to help them recoup losses. A by-product of this new global audience was to ensure there was no turning away from calls for decolonisation: “Museums tell stories and the idea that they will stop looking for new stories is ludicrous. We can’t just talk to a domestic audience anymore, especially if the Government wants us to keep paying our way.” The fight has only just begun.