Museum bosses back anti-woke charter to guard against rushed and unplanned changes to UK heritage

·4 min read
A statue of Robert Milligan is pictured being removed by workers outside the Museum of London Docklands near Canary Wharf - Reuters
A statue of Robert Milligan is pictured being removed by workers outside the Museum of London Docklands near Canary Wharf - Reuters

Bosses from three of the UK’s leading museums have backed a new anti-woke charter aimed at protecting Britain’s heritage from activists and “temporary shifts in public sentiment”.

The guidelines, written by Trevor Phillips, the writer and broadcaster, for the Policy Exchange think tank, set out three principles that any institution should follow when facing calls for change.

The chairs of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of the Home and the director of the Science Museum have all lent their support to the report, which argues against rushed and unplanned changes to public history and heritage.

Nicholas Coleridge, the chair of the Victoria and Albert Museum, said: “Practical, rigorous and above all sensible, I am certain any board or institution would do well to study them carefully instead of arriving at some drastically hasty, prejudiced and wrongheaded decision.”

Sir Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum, called it a “resoundingly reasonable guide to achieving change that is thoughtful and sustainable, rather than anxious and panicked.”

The Telegraph understands that the Government has privately welcomed the charter, which will be submitted to its recently created Heritage Advisory Board.

Statue of Thomas Guy at Guy's Hospital - Paul Grover
Statue of Thomas Guy at Guy's Hospital - Paul Grover

Senior figures are believed to be keen for institutions to have a formalised system for responding to pressure from activists, rather than the existing case-by-case approach.

A Government source said: "This paper is an important and thoughtful contribution to the debate around our shared history, which we will be examining closely.

"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."

In the report, Phillips warns that: “The alteration of public history is taking place – whether through the removal of statues, the renaming of streets, the re-evaluation of school curricula or the removal of museum exhibits – without a rigorous and non-partisan approach having been taken”.

Decision makers should be accountable to former and current donors, he points out.

Rather than preventing change, the aim of the charter is to provide “a clearly defined procedure” that institutions can follow.

The three principles call for any decision-making body to be clearly identified, with their membership and powers set out publicly; for any changes to be lawful and consistent with the aims of the institution involved; and for decision-makers to be accountable to those who support the institution, including the taxpayer and existing and previous benefactors.

The increased prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement since the summer of 2020 has led a number of cities and institutions to review statues and other celebrations of historic figures, such as street names.

The Policy Exchange report argues that change can only be justified if it will stand the test of time and should not “unduly be influenced by what may be temporary shifts in public sentiment”.

While the report says that secretaries of state should intervene where relevant and appropriate, it does not support the Government overriding the decisions of properly constructed decision-making bodies.

A Stand Up to Racism poster outside what was the Geffrye Museum in East London - Alamy
A Stand Up to Racism poster outside what was the Geffrye Museum in East London - Alamy

The Government has previously been accused by figures in the museum world of inappropriately interfering. In May, a trustee from the Science Museum withdrew from reappointment and the chair of Royal Museums Greenwich resigned over alleged attempts by ministers to influence the composition of museum boards.

The Museum of the Home, formerly the Geffrye Museum, is among a number of institutions to have recently been engulfed in rows over statues and names.

Earlier this year, the Government blocked an attempt to relocate a prominent statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, a slave-trading merchant who founded the almshouses in which the museum is located.

The then-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden was able to prevent the relocation because of the building’s Grade I listing. He insisted that the museum instead follow its “retain and explain” policy.

Dr Samir Shah, the museum’s chair, said of Phillips’s proposals: “Its principles will be of inestimable help to our institutions, and those charged with guarding and guiding them, as they deal with the issues surrounding their heritage assets.”

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