Over the past year especially, protesters and museum officials all over the world have been taking down racist and imperialist monuments either by force or with the full approval of the institution associated with the object in question. These removals are part of a global reckoning with ongoing oppression and a global desire for a different world, but in the United Kingdom, these desires are still being actively negotiated. On September 22, Oliver Dowden, the conservative Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, sent a letter to 26 separate British cultural institutions stating in no uncertain terms that their governmental financial support would be jeopardized if any more statues were taken down.
Referring to statues and other objects that depict figures associated with the slave trade and colonialism, Dowden acknowledged that “some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today. But though we may now disagree with those who created them or who they represent, they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults.”
Dowden goes on to write that the UK government explicitly does not support statues being removed. “The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country,” the letter continues. “It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question.”
Some of the institutions addressed in the letter include Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Already, the British Museum has announced that it has “no intention of removing controversial objects from display” in response to the letter. However, Oxford University officials voted this summer to remove a statue of 19th century imperialist Cecil Rhodes, so it’s clear that disputes over which actions to take will very much be ongoing in the United Kingdom.