Government policy in the UK is stoking a ‘culture war’. Will it undermine the country’s world-class museums?
As real war continues to wreak havoc across Europe, UK cultural institutions are facing their own insidious ‘culture war’ with various stakes, which could have a devastating impact on artistic expression and autonomy. museums.
Last January, four protesters in Bristol were acquitted for their role in toppling a controversial statue of British slaveholder and philanthropist Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest in the city in June 2020. Powerful footage from the event drew global attention to the question of how to deal with historical tributes in our public spaces as their current context has changed dramatically. Dubbed “the statue debate”, it has divided the public with, on the one hand, those who believe that the figures celebrated in our built environment should reflect contemporary values, and, on the other, an “anti- awakening” more conservative who fears a slippery slope that will lead to the erasure of history.
So far, this debate has largely played out in the media, but the Colston Four trial is not the only example of it entering a courtroom. A controversial law – dubbed the Policing, Crime, Conviction and Courts Bill – is currently before parliament which would increase penalties for damage to monuments and peaceful protests. On February 28, Tory MPs voted overwhelmingly to reinstate clauses rejected by the House of Lords earlier this year, raising the specter of tougher penalties on all pending cases related to the challenge.
For the art world, a lot is at stake.
“Over the past few years, the challenge has brought many positive changes to the culture sector. Mass movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter have helped make the art world less white and less masculine. Activists like Nan Goldin have helped make museum funding less unethical,” Farah Nayeri, journalist and author of Takedown: Art and Power in the Digital Age, told Artnet News. “If protest were to be curtailed in a Western democracy, the art and museum world would become disconnected from society and ultimately become less representative and less democratic.”
Threatening culture workers’ right to protest isn’t the only way these culture wars are impacting the world of museums.
The conservative media found an easy target in museums, and right-wing pundits criticized public art commissioners, artists and curators for pursuing a “woke” agenda. Their anger has often been projected onto projects aimed at increasing access and transparency, and shedding light on untold stories that were in the works long before “wokeism” became a buzzword. These projects include the National Gallery and UCL’s investigation into the links of their collections and patrons to slavery, and another similar project at the National Trust which resulted in a firestorm that ended by the resignation of its president. In an op-ed for the New Statesman, historian David Olusoga denounced the soft targeting of historians in this context: “Historians should repeatedly emphasize that ‘rewriting history’ is not an act of malpractice , but literally the work of professional historians,” he wrote.
While in office, the current Conservative Party government has appointed several major party donors to the boards of state-funded museums in an effort to redress what it has interpreted as an extremely liberal policy in the field of the arts. Six donors who have contributed a total of £3 million ($4.7 million) to party coffers have been appointed to the boards of the National Gallery, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate since Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019.
It was in the aftermath of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests that then-culture secretary Oliver Dowden sent a letter to 26 institutions saying state-funded museums ‘should not take actions motivated by activism or politics”. The Museums Association issued a statement in response, expressing concern over perceived interference in the work of museums.
“Museums must be able to conduct research and inquiry into all areas of history – it is not for ministers to dictate what constitutes a legitimate subject of inquiry or what the outcome of that research might be “, he said, adding that the government should consult widely with the sector before producing guidelines on “contested heritage”.
Senior sources within the museum’s administration, who declined to be quoted for fear of repercussions for themselves and their institutions, told Artnet News they were “baffled” by the apparent cognitive dissonance between Department of Culture, Media and Sport guidelines. to increase diversity and improve access in both their programming and infrastructure, and the backlash received from members of government when they complied. The apparent catch-22 has created a culture of fear which they say threatens the cultural landscape in the UK
“We’re told that what we need to do to receive money is to diversify at all levels,” Amal Khalaf, civic curator at the Serpentine and director of programs at Cubitt Artists, confirmed to Artnet News. “It goes beyond equality policy to actually change governance models, [and] creating more caring ways of working internally… The kind of day-to-day things of keeping open requires you to have diversity at the political level as well.
Publicly funded museums in the UK are often at least partially free to enter and are generally seen as a safe space to generate ideas and discuss differences. Many contemporary artists see discussions of major issues of race, the climate crisis, social inequality and health as an extension of their practice and museums reflect this by making themselves as hospitable as possible. Currently on view in London is an exhibition highlighting the rights of sex workers at the ICA, coming to the Serpentine is an exhibition which examines between social care for adults and children, health rights and the tangible capital; and the V&A will look at the history of fashion in Africa.
Khalaf described museums as a space to “listen differently and just be allowed to hear things differently.” She added: “Whether you’re walking through Turbine Hall, and suddenly feel like you’re allowed to be a little freer with your day, or with your time that you’re there… I think the experience that everyone has when they walk into an art space is that difference.
This tension within government that impacts museums, arts workers and scholars does not occur in a vacuum. There are currently a series of restrictive laws pending in the UK Parliament including the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Elections Bill in addition to the PCSC Bill. This host of new bills and amendments to existing laws affecting citizenship rights, access to information, voting, protest, judicial review and human rights legislation are rarely released releases, which adds to the atmosphere of fear and mistrust.
While it’s doubtful that this atmosphere will immediately translate to censorship, only time will tell if the threat of funding withdrawal will lead to more cautious ordering, and if that will have a ripple effect on the type of work that the artists will decide to do.
As many other museums around the world look to a resolutely ‘woke’, decolonised future, we wonder if the endgame of the UK’s culture wars will not only traumatise cultural professionals, but may also leave the British world. – large, disadvantaged museums on an international scale.
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