Art Fund statement on national museums, heritage, and telling our stories
Museums have a crucial role to play in our evolving understanding about our past. They are central to local and national storytelling. They help us to appreciate and learn from our history, and provoke and inspire us to think about what our past means for our present and future.
In a recent letter to national museums and cultural bodies outlining the government's position on contested heritage, DCMS Secretary of State Oliver Dowden MP recognised that statues and historical objects 'play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults' and 'we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety'. We see many museums doing this, as they have always adapted to new and emerging issues, and we are proud to support museums and curators doing this important work through many of our funding programmes.
However we share the concerns expressed by the Museums Association (MA) in its response to the letter. The MA notes that the letter 'asks museums to notify the government of any activities in this area; implies that government funding may be withheld if museums do not comply; and denies museums the responsibility to take carefully considered decisions about contested heritage in consultation with staff and their communities.'
The MA is right to highlight the importance of the arm’s length principle when it comes to national museums and cultural bodies addressing complex issues. We support the MA in calling on government to respect that fundamental principle. We also support the MA’s Code of Ethics, the first principle of which is that museums should 'ensure editorial integrity in programming and interpretation' and 'resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders'.
We look forward to hearing about the outcomes of a planned roundtable with museums and government on this issue.