People walk past the Tate Modern gallery in central London on August 5, 2019. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)
The British government has warned a number of cultural institutions that their public funding could be called into question should they remove statues or other objects that have become the focus of protests or complaints.
The issue of how Britain should deal with the legacies of its past, especially its role in slavery and colonialism, has been the subject of passionate debate since the statue of a slave trader was toppled by protesters in Bristol in June.
Since then, officials have removed the statue of another slave trader in London, a concert hall in Bristol has renamed itself, and venerable institutions like Oxford University have grappled publicly with what to do about contested heritage.
In a letter sent to the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Gallery and other prominent cultural institutions, culture minister Oliver Dowden said the government was against the removal of statues and similar objects.
"Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today," Dowden said in the letter, which was sent on Sept. 22 but published on Monday. "But though we may now disagree with those who created them or who they represent, they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults."
Some of the institutions in question received funding from slave traders in the distant past, or hold in their collections items taken from distant lands during the colonial period, without consent from the people who owned or created them.
But Dowden said that as publicly funded bodies, they should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.
"It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question," he said, adding that this was especially important at a time when government spending was under pressure.
Opposition Labour lawmaker David Lammy was among those who criticized Dowden's stance.
"History is littered with autocrats instructing museum curators on what to exhibit," Lammy wrote on Twitter, accusing the government of stoking a "fake culture war" instead of supporting the cultural sector, which has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.
History is littered with autocrats instructing museum curators on what to exhibit, but @OliverDowden knows that. The government prefers a fake culture war to addressing the poverty facing creatives, artists, and producers left whistling in the wind by this government. https://t.co/P6i01RL7Ro— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) September 28, 2020