Cultural leaders must reject the weaponisation of art and heritage and stand up for their principles
At the bottom of Oxford’s Cowley Road you won’t find a bronze statue of a colonial-era British soldier, in campaign dress and pith helmet, rifle raised to the ready position, that commemorates the Boer war. Nor will you find human skulls arranged by type for the purposes of so-called “race science” in Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History. That 1903 memorial to the Oxfordshire Light Infantryman was removed, with no nostalgic or jingoistic fuss, back in the 1950s. It now stands 10 miles away at Edward Brooks barracks, Abingdon. And those skulls were removed from anthropometric displays in 1946, as anthropology started the ongoing task of dismantling its racist infrastructure after the victory over fascism. The ongoing evolution of our historic built environment and museum displays, keeping in step with wider social change without heavy-handed governmental interference, is normal.
Until now. The secretary of state for culture is trying to ignite a fake “culture war” in the arts, museums and heritage sector. Oliver Dowden’s ministerial warning shot came in June just five days after Edward Colston’s statue fell in Bristol, as broad civic frustration with 25 years of inaction by heritage bodies in the city gave way to grassroots direct action. In a letter sent to Tory MPs, Dowden wrote: “As Conservatives we believe in the rule of law. We should not support or indulge those who break the law, or attack the police, or desecrate public monuments.” A fortnight later Dowden trained his sights on the Museum of the Home, a non-departmental public body, in Hackney, London. The museum had recently changed its name from that of the slave trader Robert Geffrye, and a public consultation was considering community demands for a 1912 reproduction of a statue of Geffrye to be relocated from above the entrance.
Read more: theguardian.com