Michael Mosbacher is Head of the Liveable London Project at Policy Exchange.
Public institutions are under unprecedented pressure to make amends for the alleged wrongs of their past – and many have already acted upon such demands.
Haberdasher’s Aske’s Schools are dropping the schools’ motto and their founder’s name from their commonly used titles – because just over one per cent of the value of his estate, he died in 1689, was represented by shares in the slaving Royal African Company; the Church of England is “in discussions” to “return” two Benin bronzes in its possession, although these examples were not looted alongside others in 1897, but were gifts from the University of Nigeria to then Archbishop Robert Runcie and were freshly minted in the 1980s; Stroud Council is considering removing an 18th century statue of a small black boy, which has stood in the city for 270 years, due to its “association”, however “directly or indirectly”, with the “slave trade and colonialism”, something which “cannot be ignored”.
Institutions have been left to their own devices as to how to respond to such demands; there have been no national guidelines they could turn to for assistance on such matters. In a report published this week by Policy Exchange, History Matters: Principles for Change, the writer and broadcaster Trevor Phillips proposes three key parameters any public institution should adhere to when considering such changes:
- any decision-making body must be identified clearly, with its composition and powers set out publicly and unambiguously;
- any changes must be lawful and consistent with the stated aims and purposes of the institution;
- and any individual or board making a decision about change in a public institution must be accountable to those who support the institution, including the taxpayer.
These principles would ensure no drastic changes, such as renaming a much-loved building or a museum’s decision to “return” important artefacts from its collections, would occur without widespread consultation.
Institutions would not be at risk of a drastic panicked, knee-jerk reaction to appease a particularly vocal but unrepresentative campaigning group; indeed they could throw back these demands, by explaining the rigorous process that they will have to go through to evaluate each case.
Some museum curators have been at the forefront of making demands for the UK to make amends for its colonialist past. For example Dan Hicks, the Curator of World Archaeology at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and a professor at the university, has called for “the physical dismantling of the white infrastructure of every anthropology and ‘world culture’ museum”.
The Pitt Rivers is currently advertising for an assistant curator whose task it will be to “return” human remains in the museum’s collection, including – as is the case in the vast majority of these objects – where no one is asking for them back and it is unclear who the descendent community they might be returned to are.
Thankfully Hicks is an outlier in the museum community. Phillips’ report has been welcomed by Nicholas Coleridge, Chair of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Samir Shah, Chair of the Museum of the Home, formerly the Geffrye Museum, and Sir Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum.
None of these figures are conspicuously associated with the Conservative Party; it is not just Conservatives who have become fed up with the ahistorical demands of today’s grievance merchants. The museum world still has many sensible, high profile voices who have thankfully not succumbed to the attractions of wokery, however crowd pleasing they might temporarily be.
They are privately aware that the demands of Hicks and other radicals in the museum world pose a grave threat to their institutions. If the agenda of those who are calling for a decolonisation of our museums were implemented our cultural heritage would be irreversibly damaged. It is to be hoped that, with Phillips and the three museum leaders speaking out against such demands, others in that world will have been given the space and intellectual self-confidence to vocalise their own concerns.
As importantly, if the report’s principles were to be adopted as policy even an institution led by someone who did subscribe to radical, anti-Western notions would not be at risk of hasty “dismantling”; the consultation process would ensure that no irreversible decisions would be taken without its risks being carefully evaluated.
It appears that the Government is listening to Policy Exchange – a senior government source has stated that Phillips’ “paper is an important and thoughtful contribution to the debate around our shared history… Too many institutions are rushing to please a vocal minority when it comes to changing history. Instead, they should follow due process, the law, and pay attention to the concerns of the majority – including museum visitors, the taxpayer and other important stakeholders”.
It is sometimes argued that Boris Johnson, with so many other pressing issues that inevitably have to be dealt with by a Prime Minister, has lost sight of how the woke left’s ideological reimagining of our nation’s history risks undermining societal cohesion.
Johnson is among Britain’s most historically-minded Prime Ministers – and arguably the most accomplished history writer – since Churchill. His speech at this year’s Conservative conference shows that he has not give up on countering the woke agenda: “As time has gone by it has become clear to me that this isn’t just a joke; they really do want to re-write our national story, starting with Hereward the Woke. We really are at risk of a kind of know-nothing cancel culture iconoclasm.
“And so we Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance, not because we are proud of everything but because trying to edit it now is as dishonest as a celebrity trying furtively to change his entry in Wikipedia, and it’s a betrayal of our children’s education”.
Defending our museums against those who wish to dismantle them remains part of this fight. Schools, universities, councils and other public bodies are subject to similar pressures. The principles that Phillips has set out will do much to help institutions resist the demands of self appointed and unrepresentative campaigners.