Photograph of the empty plinth where Edward Colston's statue used to be in Bristol, taken just after protests (June 2020); the toppling of the Colston statue was in some way the nebulous starting point for new rhetoric regarding public art from the UK government. Photograph by Caitlin Hobbs, used by permission

A key argument that has resurfaced in the wake of 2020’s renewed Black Lives Matter Movement has been the call for an honestly critical look at European colonial and imperial history, which in turn has been accompanied by growing public rejection of the anodyne, state-approved history presented in public institutions like museums. This has varied from country to country, with each former coloniser dealing with their own histories to differing degrees. 

It takes a special kind of arrogance for a government to respond by announcing its intentions to suppress any public projects designed to facilitate this critique of its imperial past. But that’s precisely what Britain has done with its plans to appoint a state-approved “free speech champion.”

As per the government’s proposed policy, the “Champion’s role will be to uphold free speech by sanctioning universities deemed to fail to do so by deplatforming visiting speakers. One would think that having a government czar to enforce a specific mandate is actually antithetical to the idea of freedom of expression; but in 2021, when people still refuse to wear masks and get vaccinated, it’s just par for the illogical course.

This is the latest development in the faux culture war stoked by the current Tory government to bog down any semblance of honest debate that teeters dangerously towards a better-informed British public. If potential university censorship for a non-issue wasn’t troubling enough (a 2018 Joint Human Rights Council report into free speech in universities found that there was no major crisis), Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s recent meeting with 25 leading British public heritage bodies is even worse.

Image of Oliver Dowden who is the Conservative MP for Hertsmere, has been an MP continuously since May 7, 2015, and who currently holds the government post of Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (image courtesy the UK Parliament)

Dowden has told these public institutions, which include the National Trust and the British Museum, to desist from “airbrushing British history” — ideally by not being critical of it at all. He also warned them that groups using public money used for projects deemed to be “political” would be punished — a barely veiled threat to the National Trust, whose Colonial Countryside project invoked the wrath of the Tory “Common Sense Group” last year for mentioning that Winston Churchill presided over the Bengal Famine. The historian leading the project, Dr Corinne Fowler, has also been the subject of attacks by right wing politicians and media columnists for doing her job.

All art is political, both in terms of their composition and the ideology of their creators. Public art plays a more enduring role in the establishment and maintenance of a supposedly “national” culture because of its ubiquitous nature. You may not be particularly interested in seeking out local art exhibitions — but most likely you’ve entered an art gallery or museum. These spaces, created, lest we forget, at the height of European colonialism to present a white supremacist vision of civilisation, have always been political. Many of them across the Western world have been making tentative steps towards presenting a more honest historical narrative — not only about the objects in their collections, but how they got there in the first place.

It is in this context that the Conservative government’s policies must be analysed. Every attempt to change the narrative via public art — from taking down an enslaver’s statue in Bristol, to the British Museum removing a bust of its founder Hans Sloane and putting it in a new exhibit that acknowledges his connections to the slave trade — has been met with an outcry by the Tories and their right-wing media allies.

Dowden’s response to all this has been to threaten museums with funding cuts if they remove statues. The well-worn (and incorrect) argument that statues memorialise history is a vapid excuse by now. Yet the way that the Conservative Party speaks of them, one would assume that public knowledge of British history would be wiped out if every dusty enslaver and coloniser statue was taken down (though given that several British “nationalists” decided to demonstrate their patriotism last year by Nazi-saluting a temporarily boxed up statue of Churchill, perhaps they’re on to something).

These policies are more than sabre-rattling by an ineffectual group of white politicians infuriated at any attempt to disrupt the bulldogs-and-railways vision of the British Empire; it’s the potential mass censorship of public art and student debate, as well as the sidelining of non-white and Black historical experiences and perspectives to avoid taking about difficult but critical issues.

In many ways, it’s a tactic straight out of the British Empire’s playbook.

Aditya Iyer is an independent journalist and writer based in London who writes about identity, migrant politics, and culture.

One reply on “UK’s Threat to Punish Museums for Removing Colonial Statues Is Colonialism 101”

  1. I don’t agree that all art is political. But I do think that all art can be interpreted through a political lens. While it’s true that public art bares a larger role in the national consciousness and thus bares a proportionally larger responsibility toward interpretive awareness. History as tracked through its visual symbols, is and always should be, in a constant state of revision and reinterpretation. As our cultural perspective changes, so does our critical eye. So how to respectfully create enduring public artifacts that will withstand this organic and healthy process? This question is increasingly critical to our current public discourse. I would be curious to read yours or others ideas.

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