British government culture war chokes museums, say administrators | Museums
Ministers face growing anger over claims they are deliberately stifling “honest and open debate” as part of a cultural war, with a concerted campaign to purge dissenting voices from positions in major museums, galleries and major British cultural organizations.
Directors, board members and prominent academics told the Observer They have been asked to remove social media posts criticizing Boris Johnson or to sign “loyalty pledges” supporting government policies.
Some have also warned that the campaign is now having a chilling effect on the research projects some institutions commission and the exhibitions they support, thereby avoiding issues such as colonialism and slavery that are deemed too political.
The news comes after two major resignations sparked by the government’s attempts to foster cultural institutions more in tune with its own views on issues such as decolonization and the return of artifacts.
Last week Sarah Dry, an author who writes on the history of science, withdrew her candidacy for re-appointment as a trustee of the Science Museum Group after being asked to support the government’s policy against the removal of objects litigious history.
Dry told the Observer that “the long-established arm’s length principle which governs UK national museums is worth defending”.
“It is only by remaining free from government interference that our museums can continue to earn public trust and do work of the quality and integrity for which they are admired around the world,” a- she declared. “Requiring administrators to support specific government policy sets a disturbing precedent that goes beyond current debates about contested heritage.
“Trustees should be free to advise museum staff in making curatorial and interpretive decisions based on their professional judgment and expertise, not government policy. I remain deeply committed to the mission of the Science Museum Group and have taken the decision to step down from the board with regret.
Meanwhile, Sir Charles Dunstone, the billionaire founder of Carphone Warehouse, has resigned the presidency of the Royal Museums in Greenwich after ministers blocked the reappointment of Aminul Hoque, one of its trustees, whose work promotes the decolonization of the program. Professor Frances Corner, director of Goldsmiths, at the University of London, where Hoque lectures, wrote last week to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden complaining about the intervention. She told him the decision was met with “shock and alarm”.
“Without an adequate explanation, this decision could well be seen as part of a model in which a government that claims to defend free speech is in fact seeking to quash an honest and open debate,” she wrote. “On behalf of our university community, I respectfully urge you to reconsider your apparent policy on public appointments.”
Concerns are now widespread in academia, with complaints that the freedom traditionally enjoyed by cultural organizations is limited by the government. “Arm length becomes handy,” said a museum curator. Some top academics have raised the issue with the British Academy, urging the corps to protest.
Peter Mandler, professor of modern cultural history at the University of Cambridge, said: “There is a long and proud tradition in this country of establishing a degree of independence for publicly funded organizations linked to freedoms. expression – universities, museums, charities, the arts. The current government seems determined to limit this independence in order to wage a “culture war” to please some of its backbenchers.
“Loyalty oaths and explicit political tests for appointing directors do not mesh well with academic freedom and conservative independence. This will undoubtedly limit the ability of museums and heritage organizations to do professional work, bringing in the best talent in their fields of study. This is already spawning over-caution, self-censorship and looking back in organizations that we expect to be daring, brilliant and innovative.
The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sports said: “Publicly funded organizations have a duty to operate in an impartial manner and not motivated by activism or politics. The government’s policy of “preserve and explain” on issues of contested heritage fully respects the independence of museums and galleries, as recognized by the Chairman of the Board of Directors of National Museums.