Is the 'arm's-length' principle under threat in UK museums?

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Authors: Chris Smith and Margot Finn
Date: June 2021
From: Apollo(Vol. 193, Issue 698)
Publisher: Apollo Magazine Ltd.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,497 words
Lexile Measure: 1240L

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Until now, national museums in the UK have been allowed to operate independently of political pressure. But recent statements and actions by the government suggest that this may no longer be the case

Chris Smith

The government has clearly decided that 'culture war' is its thing. It's at it with universities, flagging up in the Queen's Speech the imposition of a duty to promote free speech, with an enforcer appointed by itself. I'm all in favour of free speech, especially in universities --where education is surely enhanced by the expression and contest of ideas and opinions, examined and challenged as appropriate. But the last thing we need is the government deciding what free speech should be allowed and what should not.

Just as worrying, though, is what appears to be a government-directed imposition of its version of 'correctness' on our national museums and galleries. This came to a head recently when it refused to reappoint Aminul Hoque, a distinguished academic at Goldsmiths, who had been on the board of the Royal Museums Greenwich since 2016. Because his work focused on issues of decolonisation, the government decided they didn't want him as a trustee. His term of office was not renewed, and the chair of trustees resigned in protest at what the government had done. It seems as if any semblance of the arm's-length principle, about the relationship between government and museums, has vanished. This is a tragedy.

There was a straw in the wind back in the autumn, when Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Culture, wrote to museums saying they shouldn't be exploring issues of 'contested heritage' with a critical eye. This was government trying to tell museums what they can and can't do in displaying and interpreting their collections to the public. Until now, such a step would have been unthinkable.

Our national museums and galleries are the great storehouses of our nation's culture, history, science, and wisdom. They contain the things of beauty we have collected over the generations. They reflect our nation's identity, in all its diversity, complexity and glory. It's vitally important that this diversity, complexity and glory are displayed and explained to the public in the best and most effective way. And the people who know best...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A670063669