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UK government’s heritage culture war is stifling museums, say trustees

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Ministers are facing mounting anger over claims that they are deliberately stifling “honest and open debate” as part of a culture war, with a concerted campaign to purge dissenting voices from positions in Britain’s leading museums, galleries and major cultural bodies.

Trustees, board members and prominent academics have told the Observer there have been demands for them to delete social media posts critical of Boris Johnson or sign “loyalty pledges” backing government policies.

Some also warned that the drive was now having a chilling effect on the research projects some institutions order and the exhibitions they back, shying away from issues such as colonialism and slavery that are deemed too political.

The news comes after two prominent resignations prompted by government attempts to foster cultural institutions more in tune with its own views on issues such as decolonisation and the return of artefacts.

Last week, Sarah Dry, an author who writes about the history of science, withdrew her application to be reappointed as a trustee of the Science Museum Group after being asked to back the government’s policy against the removal of contentious historical objects.

Dry told the Observer that the “long-established arm’s-length principle governing Britain’s national museums is worth defending”.

“Only by remaining free of government interference can our museums continue to earn the trust of the public and to do work of the quality and integrity for which they are admired around the world,” she said. “Requiring trustees to support specific government policy sets a worrying precedent that extends beyond current debates over contested heritage.

View of the Science Museum&#39;s transport display seen from above, with a vintage car and boat and a silver propeller plane suspended in mid-air from the ceiling
The Science Museum in London, where historian Sarah Dry withdrew her application to be reappointed as a trustee. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

“Trustees must be free to advise museum staff in making curatorial and interpretative decisions based on their professional judgment and expertise, not government policy. I remain deeply committed to the mission of the Science Museum Group and I made the decision to withdraw from the board with regret.”

Meanwhile, Sir Charles Dunstone, the billionaire founder of Carphone Warehouse, quit as chair of the Royal Museums Greenwich after ministers blocked the reappointment of Aminul Hoque, one of his trustees, whose work promotes the decolonisation of the curriculum. Prof Frances Corner, the warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, where Hoque lectures, wrote to the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, last week to complain over the intervention. She told him the decision had been met with “shock and alarm”.

“Without an adequate explanation, this decision may well be seen as part of a pattern in which a government that claims to champion free speech in fact seeks to cancel honest and open debate,” she wrote. “On behalf of our academic community I urge you, respectfully, to reconsider your apparent policy with regards to public appointments.”

Concerns are now widespread in academia, with complaints that the freedom traditionally enjoyed by cultural bodies is being reined in by the government. “Arm’s-length is becoming knuckle-length,” said one museum curator. Some senior academics have been raising the issue with the British Academy, urging the body to protest.

Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at Cambridge University, said: “There’s a long and proud tradition in this country of establishing a degree of independence for publicly funded bodies relating to freedoms of expression – universities, museums, charities, the arts. The current government seems determined to limit that independence in order to pursue a ‘culture war’ to please some of its backbenchers.

“Loyalty oaths and explicit political tests for the appointment of trustees don’t sit well with academic freedom and curatorial independence. This will undoubtedly restrict the ability of museums and heritage bodies to do a professional job, drawing on the best talents in their fields of study. It is already engendering excessive caution, self-censorship and backward looking in bodies that we expect to be bold and bright and innovative.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “Publicly funded bodies have a duty to operate in a way which is impartial and not motivated by activism or politics. The government’s policy of ‘retain and explain’ on issues of contested heritage fully respects the independence of museums and galleries, as the chair of the National Museums Directors’ Council has acknowledged.”