Common Sense Champion: Sir Ian Blatchford

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James Knell
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Earlier this month, Sir Ian Blatchford – chief executive of the Science Museum Group – penned an article in the Telegraph arguing that it was not the role of museums to censor history. Sir Iain thoughtfully wrote “There is much to be said for the “retain and explain” approach to statues in situ and museum displays, because it is thoughtful; and context is all, allowing us to look history in the eye.” We could not agree more with his common sense sentiments and it is heartening that they have come from such a prominent figure in the world of British cultural institutions and museums.

This article and its author, and indeed the topic under question, are important for a number reasons. First, the fact that it is the first time that the head of a major museum or cultural institution in the UK has argued so forthrightly against censoring history is significant. It is notable too that Sir Ian’s words are motivated not by political considerations or by profit margins but by a genuine concern for the critical educative role with which the Science Museum is vested. After all, censorship and meaningful education can never be bedfellows.  

What Sir Ian correctly points out is that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, what we really should be focused on is adding to and contextualising our rich historical discourse. What we should not be doing is to censor history for fear of causing offence or being seen to do the right thing – this does a disservice not only to our august and world-leading museums but to the very people who should be learning from them. Instead, a more measured and sensible approach is to look to enrich museum displays and place them in their historical context.  

It’s also worth remembering that removing statues and displays is simply not where majority public sentiment lies. CCS polling found that six out of ten people (61%) agreed that “statues of historical figures in the UK, even if they are controversial, should be preserved rather than removed”. Museums are taxpayer-funded and there is little evidence to suggest that moves to reassess collections and/or remove them is reflective of the broader public sentiment.

This comes at a time when other leading institutions, including the Natural History Museum, are planning to review their collections over fears that they could cause offence. The NHM has commissioned an internal review in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement which will include an audit of the statues, rooms and individual items which staff members think show “legacies of colonies, slavery and empire”. Less clear are the (presumably objective) metrics the staff will be using to inform their decisions.

I’m afraid the sad reality is that slavery is part of the history of Britain – we should be shocked, we should feel repulsed and we should learn and resolve that it never happens again. This is what history teaches us. And this is a profoundly important lesson for the nation. The great irony of those social justice movements and individuals who seek to censor history for fear of causing offence or discomfort is that it makes it even harder, especially for children, to be taught this lesson.

And when does historical censorship stop? Should we remove Nelson’s column? He himself didn’t own slaves but his wife did, is he thus guilty by association? There are no parameters to this debate, because by the BLM logic, context is unimportant – judge those from the past by the moral standards of today and you have a fairly strong case to remove hundreds, thousands even, of statues, monuments and museum displays across the land.

Ultimately, museums and institutions that suggest their collections are toxic and that they are damned by association with slavery and colonialism may alienate visitors who want to learn, by looking, reading and thinking to themselves, not by being preached to.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden recently warned institutions that remove statues and objects that are linked to colonialism that they risk being defunded. He was right to suggest this – taxpayer funded organisations have a duty to act with impartiality.  Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives of right and wrong . Although we may now disagree with those who created them or what they represent, they play a vital role in teaching us about our past.

Sir Ian’s mantra is “additions not subtractions.” There can be no more common sense an approach to presenting history, and rebuffing censorship. 

James Knell

Research Director

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