By Sophie Ryan

In February 2021, UK Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, held a meeting with the heads of leading heritage institutions. After this meeting, Dowden publicized the Government’s ‘retain and explain’ policy in a Tweet, explaining that heritage organisations would be subject to new national guidelines surrounding the ways in which Britain’s history would be presented to the public in institutions such as museums and sites of significance.

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 The meeting followed a letter sent by Dowden to national heritage organisations in October 2020, which urged them to inform the Government of any updates they were planning to make to exhibits before making these updates public. These policies have subsequently resulted in backlash from unions representing museum staff and historians across the country, who fear increased Government controls over publicised history would lead to the ‘airbrushing’ and ‘whitewashing’ of Britain’s past. 

These fears are justified. Across the world history is already being airbrushed by interventionist, conservative governments promoting preconceived narratives of their nation and suppressing any findings – no matter how accurate – that deviate from these narratives.

Giving those in power unprecedented controls over places of public information, like museums, could have detrimental consequences for how subjective our historical narrative – and by association, the national perception of ourselves – becomes. Important to remember is that museums are not conservative bodies and therefore should not be regulated as such. This is not to say that there is not a need for some government intervention, but that this intervention should be in collaboration with heritage and cultural professionals to open a dialogue with racial and social justice groups, as well as engaging in conversation on a global scale regarding what truly belongs in British museums and on Britain’s streets. 

If approached correctly, this could have a significant and beneficial impact on the decolonising efforts across the globe. If not, however, there is potential for aspects of Britain’s public history to become restricted, with critical parts of it neglected. It is more important than ever, therefore, to pay attention to updates in the UK’s cultural policies. 

In Poland, for example, the Gdansk Museum of the Second World War has been under development and subsequent scrutiny over the past three years – halted only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Contention surrounding Polish collaboration with Nazi Germany put World War Two commemorations on the backburner until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when archives detailing the extent of collaboration and resistance were opened. 

2017, therefore, marked a watershed moment when Poland’s Second World War Museum was opened, presenting unadulterated information about Poland’s part in the war, with American Historian Timothy Snyder referring to it as a ‘civilisational achievement’. However, the country’s governing party–the Ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has since attacked the museum and its staff. Poland’s minister of Culture and National heritage, Piotr Glinski, dismissed the Museum director, Pawel Machzewicz, replacing him with Karol Nawrocki who initiated modifying the museum’s main exhibition with no consultation from its original producers. Nawrocki implemented governmentally prescribed instructions which focussed on the glorification of Poland’s military and victimisation of the state. 

For those in Britain undertaking historical research and working with information meant for public consumption, therefore, the increased Government interest in museum practices and discoveries is alarming when considering the potential implications of such measures as highlighted by Poland. 

Questions surrounding Britain’s past in the present, with particular focus being on its imperialist history and role in the slave trade, came to a head during the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests across the world in Summer 2020. When the statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth century slave trader, was toppled by protestors during these demonstrations, widespread debate was sparked around who and what should be commemorated in our history.

 It highlighted clearly that in modern Britain there is no longer room to give platforms to anyone tied to colonial atrocities in public spaces but that, equally, our present picture of the UK cannot and should not be separated from its colonial history. 

Soon after the toppling of the Colston statue, a statue of Winston Churchill at Westminster was vandalised with the words ‘was a racist’, resulting in the social media trend ‘#worldsgonemad’, and the subsequent boarding up of the statue to which the Prime Minister deemed an ‘absurd and shameful’ but necessary precaution. 

The policies Dowden referred to in February 2021, therefore, have been defined by the Government as their ‘twin assault’ on ‘cancel culture’ and ‘wokeness’. This undermined the efforts of protestors and researchers alike, who do not aim to ‘cancel’ significant historical figures or events, only to draw attention to the need to acknowledge the narrative of British history that includes its colonial atrocities.  

To honour this, the Colston statue has become an exhibit in Bristol’s M Shed Museum, with the graffiti, placards, and ropes used to pull the statue into the harbour, all preserved. The significance of this event, as well as the aftermath of it, should not be understated. It follows a long political, cultural, and historical debate surrounding how countries should remember their past – whether figures should be remembered for their advancements or atrocities, and whether today’s morality can be applied to the past. 

Nowhere is this more relevant than in Britain. The significance of the British Empire to British prosperity today and, by association, other nations’ relative economic poverty is vital to acknowledge. The dispute prompted by the Colston statue exemplifies how our colonial history can be acknowledged without surrendering to those who would leave these figures amongst our every-day infrastructure, using ‘history’ as the excuse for this dogmatism. 

Focus should, therefore, shift from what the inanimate object in question is to how it came to be in a museum or publicly memorialised. Whether an object, person or event has a contested history or not, its past should be displayed in its entirety – both positive and otherwise. If this is not done to a meticulous degree, we undermine the history of those who were detrimentally impacted by the figure or issue in question. 

Important to note, moreover, is the fact that each object with a contentious history must be assessed on a case-by-case basis and that one blanket policy deciding the fate of newly discovered history, or history that remains disputed, fails to acknowledge the intricacies in the provenances of these objects. Applying a blanket rule for statues, through either protecting all monuments regardless of their background, or removing every statue with links to Britain’s colonial past – including those of Winston Churchill and other high-profile figures – risks making sweeping generalisations about who facilitated our present position and how they facilitated it. 

Those who argued that toppling the Colston statue implied the entirety of the country’s history was under threat failed to consider that what was happening in front of their eyes was history in action and has, therefore, been preserved as such. History is not static and to use it in arguments for conservatism over progressivism fundamentally misses the fact that history is made through changes to the status-quo. 

This is why totalitarian governments in the past have manipulated history books – dictating one-sided and inaccurate historical narratives to maintain the status-quo is an easy yet subtle way of preserving power. Our government must tread carefully in its treatment of history and work with public institutions rather than against them to ensure that we always have access to the most up-to-date and accurate historical research.

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Last Update: September 24, 2021