After several weeks of confusion and outrage, the reasons for the Museum of the Home retaining its memorial to slave trader Robert Geffrye against the wishes of the community are becoming clearer.
When the decision to keep the statue was announced, I asked the Museum a bunch of questions including:
The Mayor of Hackney suggests that the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport may have influenced the Board’s decision. Is this true and if so what was their input?
This week a brace of emails extracted via a Freedom of Information request provided the answer. Huffington Post provided a good summary: Museum Felt ‘Extremely Compromised’ By Minister’s Plea To Keep Slave Trader Statue.
It has emerged that shortly after the community clean-up of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, Oliver Dowden (Her Majesties HM Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) wrote to the Museum of the Home to say:
“You play a crucial role in conserving our heritage assets, caring for our national
collections, providing access to knowledge and leading efforts to offer cultural education to all.
“I am aware that the issues of contested heritage provoke strongly held views, and that right now these issues will be in the forefront of your minds. I therefore wanted to share with you the government’s position on these issues.
“The government believes that it is always legitimate to examine and debate Britain’s history, but that removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach.
“Confronting our past may be difficult at times but, as the prime minister has
stated, we cannot pretend to have a different history. Historical objects were created by previous generations, who often had different perspectives and different understandings of right and wrong.”
“As a government-funded organisation, I would expect you to be mindful of the above approach, which has been agreed with Historic England. If you plan to make any statements or actions in relation to this issue, please contact DCMS in advance of doing so.”
The reference to funding can only be seen as a not-so-veiled threat in the current climate.
Dowden’s minsterial duties include appointing three of the Board members at the Museum of the Home and its Chair.
As Minister for culture, Dowden is the de facto minister for the burgeoning culture war in the UK. It is unsurprising that he has recently intervened in favour of Little Britain characters “blacking up” and “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope & Glory” being sung at the Last Night of the Proms.
He is MP for well-to-do Hertsmere in Hertfordshire. According to They Work For You, he has “Generally voted against laws to promote equality and human rights”. Dowden’s interference in Hackney is unwelcome.
A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport backed their minister:
“Whilst it is always legitimate to examine Britain’s history, removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach. Instead, we should aim to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.”
“Publicly funded museums must not remove statues that form part of a listed building or other heritage objects in their care for political or campaigning purposes. They must be seen to be acting impartially, in line with their publicly funded status.”
“Impartiality” is great cloak here for keeping everything the same forever – which is I guess the definition of “conservative”. But there are no plans to reintroduce statues of Jimmy Savile, oddly.
But yes, we will continue to educate people about Britain’s history. And perhaps create some history ourselves in doing so, as the people of Bristol have shown.
Hackney Citizen approached Ligali’s Toyin Agbetu for his charateristically spot on comment:
“As I read the communications between the Geffrye and government, it revealed that the culture minister Oliver Dowden was more concerned with preserving a monument that literally celebrates the history of Britain’s slaving past than developing assets that accurately reflect the reality of British society and culture as it exists today.
“It’s a backward-looking form of bourgeois cultural purism normally practiced by racists who feel threatened by the call for progressive change made by movements like Black Lives Matter.
“I interpret the statement, which explicitly highlights the fact that the Geffrye as a government-funded organisation is expected to be mindful of choosing to remove the statue, as a threat. The instruction telling the Geffrye staff to contact the government first if they go against its dictates was chilling.”
Ligali has also made a formal complaint to the Charity Commission about the Museum’s decision (and it was the museum’s decison – let’s not forget that)
Others including Diane Abbot have been similarly outspoken:
Still no comment from Meg Hillier, the MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch where the Museum is based though?
The museum is yet to announce a reopening date (September had been mooted). There is talk of “further reflection” by the Board. But talk and reflection are not enough.
The reopening of The Museum of the Home will be an excellent opportunity to “educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.” And if the museum will not do that, then the community will.