British Arts & Culture at a critical crossroads

“Decolonise This Place” by Billie Grace Ward CC:BY

Tories are holding a summit with major British Museums and Heritage Institutions this week to force a ‘retain and explain’ policy, with the threat of reduced funding (and worse) if they don’t comply [1].

This is essentially a backlash against moves over recent years by these organisations to begin speaking more honestly about British colonisation and slavery, and our brutal and racist past (and, um, present).

These glorious cultural decolonisation moves have included repatriating stolen cultural heritage items (including Manchester Museum’s incredible work returning ceremonial and secret sacred objects to their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders traditional owners [2]), and the inclusion of a more honest teaching of Britain’s leading role in slavery by the National Trust [3].

Unironically, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden linguistically twisted that “Proud and confident nations face their past squarely; they do not seek to run from or airbrush the history upon which they are founded. History is ridden with moral complexity, and interpreting Britain’s past should not be an excuse to tell an overly-simplistic version of our national story, in which we damn the faults of previous generations whilst forgetting their many great achievements. Purging uncomfortable elements of our past does nothing but damage our understanding of it.”

For anyone uncertain, this means that Tories want to continue to NOT face our past squarely, and DO want to continue to run from, and airbrush, the truths of our ongoing global abuses. Our fearful leaders are instead now forcing the maintenance of our overly-simplistic whitewashing of the white supremacy history we have always been told… an ongoing purging of our past.

‘A DCMS source told the paper that Dowden is aiming to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”’. Which, again, in bigot-translation-land means further threats and silencing of the voices who speak and act for equality, diversity and inclusivity, and seek to redress the wrongs of our cultural history and forge a new path of cultural honesty.

Arts, humanities and culture have a powerful role in helping shape who we are as a people – which is precisely why we’re the first to get cut in times of austerity. Having suffered an unprecedented closure of activities through COVID (and an unprecedented soaring of creative activities at home), the British arts & cultural sector is now at a critical crossroads.

Do we continue to stand for what we believe is ethically and morally right, and be truthful about our history/present, which risks ‘biting the hand that feeds’? Or do we stand quietly by whilst allowing the most dangerous Tory leadership in my lifetime to continue to strip us of all our public assets for the continued profit of a few, whilst knowingly and deliberately censoring our cultural truths?

1 – https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/2021/02/fears-over-editorial-freedom-as-heritage-bodies-summoned-to-discuss-contested-history/
2 – https://www.museum.manchester.ac.uk/about/repatriation/
3 – https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/addressing-the-histories-of-slavery-and-colonialism-at-the-national-trust

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