The British government has sent a letter to several museums and cultural institutions warning that their public funding could be called into question should they remove statues or other historical objects that have become the focus of protests or complaints.
The issue of how Britain should deal with the legacies of its past, especially its role in slavery and colonialism, has been the subject of heated debate since the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant, was toppled by Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters in Bristol in June.
At the time, the chief constable of Avon and Somerset Police, Andy Marsh, called the tearing down of the statue and its throwing into Bristol harbor “an act of criminal damage,” and Home Secretary Priti Patel condemned it as “mob rule.”
Since then, officials have removed the statue of another historical figure in London, a concert hall in Bristol has renamed itself, and venerable institutions such as Oxford University have grappled publicly with what to do about contested heritage.
Culture Minister Oliver Dowden said in the letter to the institutions, which was sent on Sept. 22 but published on Monday, that “History is ridden with moral complexity.”
“Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong,” he added.
Dowden said that the government is against the removal of statues and similar objects even though some may represent figures who had said or done things we “would not defend today.”
“Though we may now disagree with those who created them or who they represent, they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults,” he said.
Some of the institutions that were sent the letter had received funding from people connected with the slave trade in the distant past or hold in their collections items taken from distant lands during the colonial period.
Dowden said, however, that as publicly funded bodies, they should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics, and that cultural objects should be used to educate people on “all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.”
‘Significant’ Taxpayer Support
Citing the “significant support” the institutions receive from the British taxpayer, Dowden said they should not act outside their remit, especially ahead of the imminent and “challenging” Comprehensive Spending Review—a government department budgeting review carried out every three years.
“It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question,” he said.
There was no mention in Dowden’s letter of the government’s position on the restoration to their original places of cultural objects that had already been removed.
Historic England advises the UK government and local authorities on contested heritage.
With regard to the reinstatement of the statue of Edward Colston to its plinth in Bristol city center, a Historic England spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email that it was for Bristol City Council “as the decision-maker in the planning process, to decide.”
“We are encouraging the council to engage in a city-wide conversation about the future of the statue,” The spokesperson said.
“As the government’s heritage adviser, we are here to offer advice and guidance when we are needed.”
Neither the government’s culture department nor the Bristol museum had responded to a request for comment from The Epoch Times by the time of this report.
Acts of cultural revision that have taken place following recent BLM protests in the UK have included the renaming of Gunga Din House, a senior boys’ boarding house at an independent Oxford school over perceived racist connotations; and the renaming by The University of Edinburgh of a campus building over 18th-century philosopher David Hume’s 260-year-old comments on race.
The British Museum reorganized displays to reflect the “exploitative context of the British Empire,” prior to its reopening in August.
Opposition Labour lawmaker David Lammy was among those who criticized Dowden’s stance.
“History is littered with autocrats instructing museum curators on what to exhibit,” Lammy wrote on Twitter, accusing the government of stoking a “fake culture war” instead of supporting the cultural sector, which has been ravaged by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus, pandemic.
The culture secretary’s letter was sent to the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Imperial War Museum, the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, the British Library, the Natural History Museum, and other prominent British cultural institutions.
Reuters contributed to this report