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The culture minister should take an interest in museums – but he can’t tell them how to interpret the past

16 February 2021

I felt a very faint twinge of sympathy for Oliver Dowden, I have to confess, when I saw the storm of protest which greeted his request that the heads of the institutions funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should attend a meeting to discuss how history is represented in public institutions. Keeping any sympathy in check was the government’s confrontational means of publicising the meeting: it was trailed in an article in the Sunday Telegraph, announcing that its purpose was to ‘defend our history’, amid concern that a ‘noisy minority of activists’ are trying to ‘do Britain down’.

Nevertheless, how museums present and interpret British history is an important, problematic issue about which it is surely totally appropriate for museum directors and the heads of the agencies looking after heritage, including the National Trust and Historic England, to meet. There would be much to be gained from an open discussion about how they are responding to views – including, from its own perspective, that of the government – that our approach to history should be radically reconstructed.

It has been assumed that the meeting is totally unprecedented. While I was director of the National Gallery, however, it was not so unusual for there to be meetings called by the Department for Culture to discuss issues of common concern – although these were certainly not summarised in the national press before they had even taken place. I remember a meeting to discuss how we were all going to deal with the Cultural Olympiad (I remember it because Tim Knox, then director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, bravely said that he had no intention of paying any attention to the Olympics). I also remember being summoned to a dingy hotel outside Kingston, just before Christmas, for a series of pep talks by Labour ministers. This was deeply resented but we had no option, because the Department for Culture provides a considerable proportion of the funding of many of these institutions and, it needs to be remembered, is answerable to parliament for public policy. So, it is not unreasonable for the government to be interested in cultural policy.

The key issue is whether the government will use the meeting to explore how institutions have responded to the current demands to reinterpret history, to listen and to share issues of common concern. Or whether it will, instead, use this as an opportunity to try to impose the government’s own ideas as to how national history should be presented: in the over-simplified, ahistorical and triumphalist manner that it has pushed in the wake of Brexit. The latter strategy will almost certainly be counterproductive; it will, and should be, resisted by trustee bodies, which have statutory independence.

From my perspective, there is a marked difference in the way institutions have responded to widespread concerns about how history is presented, many of which have been brought into focus by the Black Lives Matter movement. A frank discussion of these responses, and how they have themselves been received, might make for a good use of the advertised meeting.

A new home for Hans Sloane: the bust of the British Museum founder is displayed in a vitrine exploring the ‘legacies of empire and slavery’, installed during the lockdown of spring 2020.

A new home for Hans Sloane: the bust of the British Museum’s founder in a display exploring the ‘legacies of empire and slavery’. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The British Museum, for example, has used lockdown to make a significant modification in the way its collection is presented. In particular, it has chosen to move the bust of Hans Sloane from a commemorative plinth into a display case with accompanying information about his career as a slave owner. Contrary to those newspaper pundits who were appalled by this action, probably without seeing it, I thought it was an entirely appropriate decision that the museum should document its founder’s actions as a slave owner and draw attention to them, but in a way which was explanatory, rather than overtly condemnatory. It leaves visitors to draw their own conclusions.

The Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum), meanwhile, has had to respond to the demands, most especially from its local community, that it remove the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye from the niche in the facade of the historic almshouses that house its collections. What it did, which was probably a good idea at the time, was to conduct an online survey. But when the great majority of respondents supported the view that the statue should be removed, the trustees, following advice from the Department for Culture, decided not to. Presumably this was partly because the statue belongs to the historic fabric and is protected by legislation (even without the current government’s determination to introduce further legislation on the subject of statues).

My regret about the DCMS meeting is not that it is being held, then, but that the nature of the discussion and the conclusions which are reached will not be made public; and that, owing to the rancour of the current culture wars, we are not able to have a proper, balanced and even-handed discussion about how best to represent the British past in all its complexity.

Charles Saumarez Smith was director of the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery and is author of The Art Museum in Modern Times (Thames & Hudson).