Labelling our nation’s heritage

This is an attempt to take a red pen to the whole of Oliver Dowden’s piece in the Telegraph, We Won’t Allow Britain’s Heritage to be Cancelled, published on 15th May 2021. Oliver Dowden is secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and plays a lead role in an attack against pluralist and decolonising moves in the Cultural sector.

I am proud of our nation’s heritage.

An assertive start, which immediately rankles if you think pride is a sin (and in Christianity, the main faith of our nation’s heritage, it’s the deadliest). Then it rankles because our nation is a complex mix of nations and communities, and it rankles more because heritage is to be critiqued and learned from.

I don’t say this just as Culture Secretary, but as someone who happily spends their weekends exploring every part of it. I’m not alone in this passion.

This frames heritage as ‘attractions’, as places to visit at weekends, rather than as the living environment or as intangible heritage enriching our daily lives. That he ‘happily’ explores heritage frames it as something you don’t explore with emotions such as sadness or anger. The tactic of saying ‘I’m not alone…’ is to show that the troops are on his side, those who appreciate culture and don’t dismantle it by critique.

Our heritage unites us as a country, and draws visitors to our islands by the millions.

The first part of the sentence begs the question of proof. Some aspects of our heritage (e.g. sectarianism) divide us deeply, and more so if these divisions are not addressed. It is true that heritage organisations can facilitate connection and mutuality between divided people, but this doesn’t happen automatically just because heritage exists. Such programmes need support. And what country is he referring to as being united? Is it the UK or England?

The second part of the sentence also begs the question of proof. Overall, the richness of public culture and creativity attracts millions of visitors, and for some visitors British royalty and trappings of colonial wealth are a draw. However, there is no evidence that tourists wouldn’t come if some buildings were renamed, some stolen artefacts returned, or some statues moved. In fact, arguably, if the icons of our colonial and royal heritage were brilliantly replaced with contemporary creativity and cultural diversity in mainstream marketing for tourism, visitors might still come. The biggest factors reducing the numbers of visitors here are Brexit and (the mishandling of) Covid-19.

And as someone whose love of heritage was learned, not inherited, I am deeply committed to ensuring it is available to everyone.

To suggest that he ‘learned not inherited’ a love of heritage is revealing. In fact, the only things we inherit without learning are our genetic characteristics. Everything we know how to do or to value is learned from family, peers, media and institutions of heritage (e.g. faith, trades or arts practices). He wants to suggest he is ordinary folk because he didn’t grow up steeped in the privilege of access to heritage, although he did go to one of the most over-subscribed state schools in Hertfordshire and then Cambridge.

On the second part of the sentence, if he was so deeply committed to inclusive access to culture and heritage, he would not be part of plans to cut Arts courses in Higher Education by 50%, and would not be spending so much energy rehabilitating British colonial culture at risk of alienating potential audiences for a more pluralist and democratic cultural offer.

So when coronavirus threatened to decimate the cultural landscape, I stepped in to make sure stately homes, churches and other heritage sites survived the worst crisis they have ever faced.

The Conservative Government had been threatening to decimate, and actually decimating, the cultural landscape long before Covid-19 came along. And why only mention stately homes, churches and ‘other heritage sites’, as if there were also no industrial, maritime, military, agricultural and colonial heritage that requires a more critical lens? In addition, there is no explicit reference to the diversity of cultural heritage such as mosques or synagogues, or of activist movements or migrant communities.

Our £2 billion Cultural Recovery Fund is the biggest single intervention in UK arts and heritage ever — and further proof that it is the Conservatives who are the party of culture.

The last phrase begs the question of proof: would the other parties, if in power, have failed to issue a Cultural rescue package in a pandemic? And, weren’t Government convinced to allocate £2 billion because of the economic case for Culture already well made in the past 20 years, through a hard process of cultural valuation? And, is £2 billion enough, compared, say, to the £37 billion for the Test and Trace scheme.

But just as I’ve never hesitated to stand up for our cultural institutions and am working tirelessly to support them in their reopening tomorrow, I will not look on as people threaten to pull down statues or strip other parts of our rich historic environment.

The use of terms like ‘standing up’, ‘working tirelessly’ and ‘not look on’ is aggressive, aiming to perpetuate the concoction of a Culture War. It sets him on a pedestal, as if he wants a statue of himself as a defender of culture. It’s all about deflecting attention from the actual attacks on culture by the Government such as library closures or letting developers destroy the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for a bell-themed hotel.

And, what is meant by ‘strip other parts’? Are there other threats, made by other parties than Government or approved-of developments? Confident ministers use facts and details, not vague gestures.

Confident nations face up to their history. They don’t airbrush it.

The UK was once a confident nation. Its colonies and military empire gave it an antagonistic and uncomfortable kind of confidence that was being slowly replaced by a new kind of pluralistic, collaborative role in the world. The big threat to this confidence is Brexit.

This is gaslighting — turning the accusation back to the critics of extractive, colonial culture. He’s equating critical removals of celebratory icons with ‘airbrushing’, as if the critical removal is done in a ‘hush-hush’ obfuscating way. In reality these removals, most often unsuccessful, involve transparent and lengthy debate.

Instead, they protect their heritage and use it to educate the public about the past. They “retain and explain,” rather than “remove or ignore”.

This gets to the main point of the article, which is a defence of his Department’s ‘retain and explain’ policy. This breaks the arms-length principle for DCMS bodies, and creates a monotonous policy on how to interpret the particular collections or sites that each institution expertly stewards. As explained above, the opposite of ‘retain and explain’ isn’t ‘remove or ignore’.

They don’t do what Liverpool University did and remove William Gladstone’s name from an accommodation block because of his family’s links to slavery.

Dowden only gives this one example, and it seems a small harmless action to warrant his complaint, and to justify all their attacks on the Cultural sector such as vetoes of trustee appointments, requiring oaths of loyalty, fining student unions for de-platforming speakers, and banning schools from using resources created by organisations who promote ‘victim narratives that are harmful to British society’.

Of all the figures who have fallen victim to the culture wars in the past year, this seems like a particularly egregious case. Gladstone, prime minister four times and a hero of liberalism, never owned slaves and though his views evolved, he called slavery the “foulest crime” in our history. But those details were apparently too nuanced for the campus activists. His father owned slaves, and therefore Gladstone himself needed to be expunged from the record.

This story underpins the Government’s approach, which is to deny institutional racism. Gladstone may have said such things about slavery, but the key point of the critique about him is the structures of privilege and power that were enabled by the scale and horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Gladstone family has said they won’t oppose statue removal of their ancestor.

I don’t agree with that approach. Leading voices in our museums and heritage organisations don’t agree with it. And neither does the public. That includes the 84 per cent of black Britons who say they don’t want to see our heritage pulled down or hidden from view, according to a recent poll.

He doesn’t cite these leading voices, but we can assume these are not leading voices across the political and cultural spectrum. The poll he refers to is by a right-wing thinktank, the Henry Jackson Society. The consultees were asked if they think tearing down statues is a legitimate form of protest. There is in fact a big distinction between tearing down statues in a heated crowd, and debating and planning for the removal of celebrated colonial icons. Dowden is conflating these, and using the gentler ‘pulled down’ not ‘tearing down’.

The tricky bit is putting “retain and explain” into practice. So last week a new Heritage Advisory Board met for the first time to draw up new guidelines for heritage organisations on how this should be done. Its members include the Museum of the Home’s Dr Samir Shah, Trevor Phillips, former director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, historian Robert Tombs and Dr Anna Keay, director of the Landmark Trust. They come from a range of backgrounds, but they are united by one common commitment: that as temporary custodians of our heritage, their duty is to preserve it, and use it to give a comprehensive, balanced account of the past.

This all sounds reasonable. And their recommendations will probably be reasonable. On the whole, versions of ‘retain and explain’ are what most heritage institutions would reasonably opt to do anyway, although some would rightly take account of any wishes of communities that might be consulted. ‘Retain’ could include, if appropriate, moving an item to a less triumphal location, and ‘explain’ could include substantial interpretation about the critical histories of a person or artefact.

Thinking about the phrase ‘their duty is to preserve it’, it’s notable that Dowden only refers to heritage items being ‘pulled down’ or ‘hidden from view’, and doesn’t mention the repatriation of artefacts to their source communities. Acts of repatriation can be deeply symbolic and reparative, involve years of relationship building and research, and can be incredibly educational for a museum’s audiences. The museum might retain a facsimile with plenty of explanation. These processes are carried out responsibly, aiming to preserve and restore artefacts that have been wrongfully taken, misinterpreted and decontextualised. Perhaps Dowden doesn’t mention this because he wants his readers to hold in their minds the iconoclastic act of a crowd toppling the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, or woke students anachronistically moaning about Gladstone.

To do that, museums and other bodies need to have genuine curatorial independence. But independence cuts both ways. Heritage organisations should be free from government meddling, but the people who run them also need the courage to stand up to the political fads and noisy movements of the moment.

This is twisty. It’s pretending to assert the rights of arms-length bodies to their independence while twisting round to demand that they also stop listening to people, block their ears to protest, and stop responding to calls for systemic change. And, the mention of noisy movements brings to mind the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that will ban seriously annoying noise in any kind of protest.

And as national institutions, heritage organisations should take into account the views of the entire nation: the people for whom they were set up, and whose taxes pay for them. That’s why I want to make sure the boards of these bodies are genuinely diverse and not solely governed by people from metropolitan bubbles. I want a grandparent in Hartlepool or Harwich to feel as represented by their decisions as a millennial in Islington.

As an audience researcher and evaluator in the cultural and heritage sector, I can assure Dowden that national institutions do try to take account of the entire nation. (And not just England - because national institutions were established for the whole of the UK, even though their funding body DCMS has only covered England since devolution.) It serves their needs to really discover the needs and interests of a range of communities, and to find more effective and sustained ways of consulting them. However, national institutions have really struggled to genuinely diversify their trustees, probably because boards made up of white, older people with wealth and business connections have been able to call in favours such as corporate sponsorship. Recent appointments approved by DCMS have been dominated by people from finance, law and industry. Dowden implies that boards of national institutions are dominated by those who represent millennials from Islington. If you were to ask 25–35 year olds from inner London if they feel represented by these trustees, I doubt they would.

None of this means preserving our history in aspic. History is a dynamic, living subject, and it’s right that we reassess and reinterpret events as our understanding evolves. But any account of the past should start from a commitment to telling a balanced, nuanced and academically rigorous story — one that doesn’t automatically start from a position of guilt and shame or the denigration of this country’s past.

This rhetorical passage opens with a reasonable, critical position so that you start nodding along, and then gives you another reasonable statement that’s difficult to disagree with. But the subtext of the last part, and therefore the whole of it, is to say that what really matters is to celebrate our nation’s heritage without denigration or shame. When the impacts of British colonialism include administered famine and genocide, ongoing conflict (e.g. Palestine), displacement and human rights abuses, and more, it is quite difficult to think how one might approach this with pride. The emotion of shame can be problematic, but it is also a natural human emotion on encountering the ‘academically rigorous story’ of British history and its impact on the world, and of the harms of other regimes supported by Britain.

One that acknowledges, for example, the evil of slavery, but acknowledges this isn’t a uniquely British crime, and that our nation led the world in eradicating it.

If ‘our nation led the world in eradicating’ slavery, perhaps this might be because our nation also led the world in forming and running the Transatlantic system of human traffic, murder and abuse. Some of the British aristocracy were more aware of the horrors having crafted and benefited from the system. Moreover, the movement did not entirely originate with Brits. Some of the leading anti-slavery campaigners located in this country had been slaves themselves, such as Olaudah Equiano. And then the movement really took off following the inspiration of the American Revolution.

One that is willing to grapple with the paradox that our predecessors could both gift us the advancements of the Enlightenment while tolerating things we would never tolerate today. One that doesn’t take the places that were built to unite us, and use them to drive a wedge between us. Our museums, churches and village halls are places where people get married, or go to enjoy a family day out. They were built for joy, celebration — not to divide us or fill us with shame.

‘The advancements of the Enlightenment’ that were gifted came with a shadow — abilities to separate, to limit feelings of empathy, to be able to exploit others with rational justification.

The piece is coming to its end soon, and so we’re seeing some rhetorical repetitive devices, a pinch of emotion, and an appeal to unity and celebration. Yes, sure, we’d all love to be back in museums, churches and village halls commingling and feeling as one. And, the piece was timed the day before lockdown is easing, letting us meet indoors again. But the truth is we’ve been divided by a racist media, five years of Brexit hate, and growing inequality. (The rich are richer, and the poor are far poorer than in Europe.)

I want to take not a Maoist but a “moreist approach” to our heritage: I want more statues erected; more chapters added to our national narrative and more understanding of it. In short, more history, not less. The point is to expand the conversation — not shut it down.

Moreist? This is just embarrassing. Dowden needs to change his SPADs. He wants more erections, more chapters, more history. But his desire to expand the conversation is not supported by the evidence of recent attacks on culture and democracy.

The pressure on our heritage is part of a worrying trend — a cancel culture whereby a small but vocal group of people claim to have the monopoly on virtue, and seek to bully those who dare to disagree. But the world is too complicated for that kind of totalitarian moral certainty — and we must resist it at all costs.

This final section reinforces the fact-free rhetoric of the whole piece. There has been no evidence of this ‘worrying trend’, none of this ‘small but vocal group’ is described, their claims to have the monopoly on virtue have not been quoted, and the accusations of their bullying have not been backed up.

The world is too complicated for the totalitarian moral certainty of Dowden and his colleagues. We must resist these attacks on our democratic participation, on our freedom of speech, on the long-held arms-length trust in heritage professionals, and on the rights of people of all characteristics to feel safe and represented.

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