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Neither the Council for British Archaeology, nor any other national amenity society from the Heritage sector, will be present at today’s [23 February 2021] meeting of 25 heritage organisations called by the Secretary of State for Digital Culture Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, to discuss controversial aspects of British history, a spokesperson for the CBA has told thePipeLine.
The news comes as the Society for Post Medieval Archaeology [SPMA] became the latest body to express concern that the Government was seeking to influence directly what aspects of history were researched using public money and how it was presented, as part of its, so called, “war on woke”.
The apparent exclusion of bodies which, like the CBA, represent rank and file archaeologists, researchers and the public, leads to concern that the views of people actually undertaking research in the heritage sector and applying for the funds to do that research from funding bodies, may not be fully communicated to Mr Dowden and the Government at the meeting. This is possibly because the meeting was trailed in the Sunday Telegraph as having the function of telling the attendees,
“to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”
and consequently any opposition to the Government stance voiced at the meeting might be seen as inconvenient at a corporate level in at least some of the bodies which are attending.
Further concerns include the apparent secrecy surrounding the meeting, with the DCMS failing to confirm who is attending and suggestions the agenda and content of the discussions will not be published.
Another issue, which is perhaps even more significant given the subject, is whether there will even be any people of colour present to discuss an issue which largely arose out of a move to assess and present properly, Britain’s colonial past and role in slavery.
Bodies known to, or believed to, be attending the meeting, include the National Trust, Historic England, the British Museum, the Horniman Museum, the Imperial War Museum, Science Museum Group, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Film Institute.
However, asked if the CBA, one of the objects of which is to,
“…conduct and communicate the results of relevant research”
, had been invited to attend Mr Dowden’s summit, a spokesperson for the Council for British Archaeology told thePipeLine,
“I can confirm that the CBA has not been invited to attend this meeting, neither have any of the other National Amenity Societies.”
the spokesperson added,
“For the CBA, public participation in heritage is key and we will be monitoring the outcomes of this meeting and what the DCMS has to say going forward.”
Emphasising these priorities, writing in the September/October 2020 edition of the magazine British Archaeology the Executive Director of the CBA, Neil Redfern outlined the issues at stake in the area of contested heritage, such as Britain’s colonial past and involvement with slavery, as many in the heritage sector see them,
“Our history has shaped our present and that includes the darker parts of history which have led to inequalities and prejudices in modern society. Many aspects of heritage are contested. While some people have positive associations others find them painful or difficult. Public representations of heritage which are connected to a history of violence against some communities are not only traumatic for those communities, but risks perpetuating inequalities.”
Referencing the Government and heritage sector’s often stated aim of using heritage to promote a positive sense of identity and place, he added,
“Heritage cannot contribute to community wellbeing and support learning and discovery about the past, unless the practice we undertake today is both diverse and inclusive.”
While there might be broad agreement with the definition of what is at stake across the heritage sector, opinion as to how to respond to Mr Dowden’s initiative is divided, with some in politics and the heritage sector suggesting that the meeting, indeed perhaps the entire “war on woke”, is a distraction designed by the Government to provoke a response and that the sensible strategy is not to engage with it at all.
However, others argue that not to defend the independence of the sector and people who work in it, robustly would take the study and presentation of heritage to the edge of a slippery slope leading to a Government approved version of Britain’s past which could change every time the Government changes.
Certainly one of the leading targets of the right wing culture warriors, attacking what they claim is “woke” history, believes that the critics should be challenged.
On the eve of the meeting Professor Corrine Fowler of Leicester University and director of the publicly funded, child led “Cultural Countryside Project” for the National Trust told the Guardian,
“When you try to interfere with academic freedom in the name of free speech, you’re steering the country in a dangerous direction.”
The project, which enables children to investigate the African, Caribbean and Indian connections at 11 National Trust properties is co funded by the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund has been a focus for criticism by amongst others, the parliamentary Common Sense Group [CSG] which claims a membership of around fifty nine back bench Conservative MP’s and seven Conservative members of the House of Lords.
In a letter to the Telegraph published in November 2020 the CSG stated that,
“Part of our mission is to ensure the institutional custodians of our history and heritage, tasked with safeguarding and celebrating British values, are not coloured by Cultural Marxist dogma colloquially known as the “woke agenda”.”
The comment provides context to an earlier interview in December 2020 where Professor Fowler told the Guardian,
“We are living in times of upheaval, when life feels fragile and uncertain. In this fraught environment, it is easy to incite hatred or disdain by misrepresenting the work and motivations of academics and curators. It is also true that the levels of intolerance and hostilities towards outsiders and those we consider as the ‘other’ have risen in the past few years.”
She also likened the current attacks on historians trying to take an evidence led view of difficult historical stories to those previously mounted on scientists by climate change deniers, suggesting that one of the issues for critics was that modern research presented a far darker and more complex view of historic buildings which were seen previously as simple expressions of a quintessentially English island story.
Supporting the position of researchers like Professor Fowler, ahead of the meeting one of the UK’s leading archaeological bodies which has a particularly interest in the archaeology of the colonial period, the Society for Post Medieval Archaeology, released a strongly worded statement which concludes,
“The Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology therefore fully supports the editorial independence of heritage bodies in England over how they approach the interpretation of the past, and urges DCMS not to use a party-political agenda to drive these important debates.”
While Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association told the Guardian that she felt the heritage sector should,
“ensure editorial integrity and resist attempts to influence content and interpretation by interest groups including funders”.
Echoing the comments of a number of political observers Ms Heal questioned the timing of the meeting, indeed of the entire “war on woke” campaign across the right wing press.
“It seems odd to be prioritising this now when so many who work in museum and heritage are focusing on recovery and welcoming our communities safely back into our venues,” Ms Heal said.
However, many political commentators argue that the apparently odd timing and prioritising of what to many is a niche issue, is perhaps the point.
From the Government’s point of view it is better to have the Conservative party’s voting “base” talking about Woke academics “doing Britain down”, than about the worst Covid-19 driven recession in the developed world, the unlawful procurement of PPE for health workers from alleged cronies and over one hundred and twenty one thousand fellow citizens dead.
There are also concerns that the bodies invited to attend the meeting are particularly dependent on not just Government funding, but on Government goodwill to even continue in their current form at all.
The Standard’s Londoners Diary reported a source in Historic England who alleged that,
“many Historic England employees feel they are very much under pressure from government to toe a line on issues like planning”
Here it is important to state that the DCMS point out,
“we have provided £138m via Culture Recovery Fund and £95m via Heritage Stimulus Fund and the Heritage Action Zones to the heritage sector”.
With archaeology already facing a 50% cut in higher level funding in Universities as the Government pivots support to STEM courses, and the possible downgrading of archaeology and environmental requirements under the Government’s proposed redrawing of planning rules, it is this level of lifesaving financial support which makes the heritage sector particularly vulnerable going into today’s meeting.
Also at the back of the minds of senior managers and trustees of museums and heritage bodies will be Mr Dowden’s pointed comments after the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol.
In a letter written to national museums and the so called arms length bodies such as the Arts Council, in September 2020 Mr Dowden wrote he,
“…would expect arm’s length bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the government’s position”.
This position is to retain and explain contested heritage like statues, not to remove them. A position which was reinforced by communities secretary Robert Jenrick who in January promised to change the law to protect such statues from what he termed “baying mobs“. A move which was derided as pointless and unnecessary by leading legal commentator David Alan Green.
Apparently with a view to controlling the discussion, Mr Dowden also told the recipients of the letter to advise the DCMS of any comments on the issue of contested heritage in advance of publication.
Of most concern to the sector was a comment on funding.
Mr Dowden wrote,
“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,”
adding this was
“especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised”.
The implied threat to the funding of organisations which tried to assert their independence of Government policy was summarised as,
“Nice museum, shame if something happened to it…”
Meanwhile both the Society of Antiquaries [which is currently in negotiations with its landlord, the Government, over the rent for its Piccadilly Headquarters, Burlington House] and Historic England [which depends of Government for both influence and funding] have issued policy statements which broadly endorse the DCMS line.
In the end, either Mr Dowden is a Cosplay cultural Kray Twin, going through the culture war motions and working over the heritage sector in the basement of the DCMS for the edification of the Telegraph, the Spectator, and the, to many, oxymoronic Common Sense Group of Conservative MP’s and as such is happy to accept the targeted trolling of individual academics like professor Fowler as collateral damage, and perhaps a useful example, “pour encourager les autres”; or this is the start of something which is potentially much more serious and requiring of some tough choices on the part of individuals and organisations in the Heritage sector.
As with everything in History time will tell.
And even then the story might not be entirely clear.
But here it is worth pointing out that Mr Dowden, who might sometimes seem bland enough to be the the Ken Doll of the Cabinet, is fact a highly experienced political operator and has a background in public relations. Indeed, he is reputed to be particularly skilled in attack jobs, having worked alongside disgraced communications chief Andy Coulson in David Cameron’s back office.
The professional body which regulates the ethics of the archaeological profession, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists has been asked by thePipeLine if it has been invited to attend the meeting. CIfA has not replied so far. Neither has the organisation published a statement on contested heritage and research, as it might affect its members, on its website.