Apollo Magazine

The culture secretary has no business threatening museums

Oliver Dowden’s recent letter to museums about contested heritage is a clear breach of the ‘arms-length’ principle

Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Photos: Tolga Akmen/AFP; Fox Photos/Getty Images

Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Photos: Tolga Akmen/AFP; Fox Photos/Getty Images

On 22 September, Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) wrote to his ‘colleagues’ at the national museums and other arms-length bodies warning them that: ‘the Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects’ (the underlinings are his). The letter, headed ‘HM GOVERNMENT POSITION ON CONTESTED HERITAGE’ (capital letters also his), made it clear that: ‘as publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics’.

This latest salvo in the culture wars may give Lord Mendoza – tasked, as the DCMS-appointed Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal, with reporting on how the arts can recover from the pandemic – particular pause for thought. As Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, Mendoza also faces the tricky question of what do with the statue of its benefactor Cecil Rhodes. Oxford High Street is where, in the UK, the battle over ‘contested heritage’ might be said to have started. But the Secretary of State’s letter raises far more important issues than the fate of unpopular statues.

Dowden follows up his warning against ‘erasing these objects’ with a threat: ‘The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country. 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. This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.’

At a time when the entire cultural economy is hanging by a thread, the Secretary of State’s threat has already alarmed the Museums Association, which, while acknowledging the delicacy of the contested heritage issue, has issued a statement urging the government to ‘respect the arm’s-length principle for museums’. The British Museum has issued a more circumspect statement saying that it has no intention of removing controversial objects, but will recontextualise or reinterpret them.

There is a danger that the row over statues will distract us from the government’s breach of the arm’s-length principle, which has traditionally meant that the government does not interfere with the policies of those it funds directly, as in the case of national museums, or indirectly through Arts Council England.

While the convention of government non-interference in arts and heritage matters was established with the Arts Council in 1946, the term ‘arm’s length’ did not begin to be used in a cultural context until the 1970s. Before that, as the cultural critic Raymond Williams remarked of his time on the Arts Council, such was the unofficial compact between the government and ‘the Great and the Good’, that politicians could safely assume that those they put in charge of cultural institutions (including the BBC), would ‘act as if indeed they were state officials’.

‘Arm’s length’ is in fact a legal term to describe an agreement between two parties where neither has an advantage over the other. But what might be called a socially distanced relationship has morphed into a physiological metaphor, in which the government is at one end of the arm, and cultural bodies at the other. The government has the financial muscle and (as Dowden’s letter reminds them) cultural bodies are expected by their ‘Management Agreements’ to ‘be consistent with the Government’s position’.

The Secretary of State should be careful of what he wishes for. The arm’s-length principle for cultural bodies has served to separate politicians from the controversial, or silly, things that creative people occasionally get up to. He lays himself open to being asked questions in Parliament about activities for which the Arts Council has acted as a prophylactic, protecting the government from what radical writers and artists might get up to.

There seems to be no hope in looking for protection from the Arts Council. It recently cautioned those it funds not to say anything negative about the government. This is an all too familiar stance on the part of the Council and, to judge from his silence, Arts Council chairman Sir Nicholas Serota has been gagged by his chief executive, Darren Henley, who shows extreme reluctance to speak up for the arts. It may be that the Arts Council – aware, as Henley has admitted, that its portion of the £1.57 billion the government has set aside to help the arts and entertainment sector get through the Covid-19 crisis is by no means enough (and conscious that it does not cover the great majority of freelance cultural workers) – dares not offend a minister who sends out threatening letters. In which case there is no point in having an Arts Council.

We are shortly to hear again from Lord Mendoza and his Cultural Recovery Task Force. Let us hope they can offer something better than ‘Operation Cinderella’, the DCMS’s unfortunate title for its plan to reopen theatres before the pantomime season. (Most remain closed; the political pantomime continues.) The first thing the Task Force should issue is a robust defence of the arm’s length principle, the principle that has allowed a creative and critical contemporary culture to flourish, while supporting our infrastructure of museums, galleries, concert halls and theatres. So too should the Arts Council. As for Dowden and DCMS – don’t hold your breath.

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