History Matters Project: a compendium of evidence
This is the sixth edition of our rolling compendium, which attempts to draw together a range of recent developments that turn on the place of history in the public square – including the removal of certain statues on public display, the renaming of buildings and places, and changes to the way history is taught in educational curricula. In cataloguing these examples, we do not offer any judgment on the actions of the individual or institution in question, today or in the past. Our aim is simply to provide a clear documentary record of what is happening – which can help inform public debate on these issues. At present, the evidence confirms that history is the most active front in a new culture war, and that action is being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past.
Policy Exchange renews a call for evidence asking museum directors, curators, teachers and the wider public to share their experiences and concerns about the ways in which history is being politicised, and sometimes distorted, sending their evidence to callforevidence@policyexchang
1. National Gallery
The Director of the National Gallery has told the board of trustees that remaining politically neutral “was no longer feasible.”
2.1. The Interim Chair asked GF to outline for Trustees what discussions the Gallery had been having around the Black Lives Matter campaign. GF said that it was a highly complex area and that taking a neutral stance was no longer feasible. He said that in the past, the Gallery as a government funded body had refrained from making political statements, and had instead tried to respond to events through its activities, but that the climate had changed so that silence was now perceived as being complicit. He said that the Gallery had put out a message saying that it stood in solidarity with those who reject racism, inequality and violence through social media channels. He said that a particular difficulty for the Gallery was its location in the heart of Trafalgar Square, which was most often where demonstrations took place.
2.2. GF said that the internal response as to how the Gallery should respond also had to be taken seriously and that part of the Gallery’s strategy was to draw in a younger audience to whom these issues mattered a great deal.
2.3. In response to concerns raised by a Trustee as to what the Gallery’s response would be if challenged on particular items in its collection, GF said that much work had been undertaken by the curatorial team to ensure that all labelling marked clearly where paintings were associated with slavery. He said that there was much ongoing discussion between the six main national museums about how best to respond and act and that he would keep the Board updated.
2. Leeds City Council
A review of statues in Leeds has concluded that there were “no individuals honoured by statues in Leeds who were known to be directly central to the slave trade”. The Deputy leader of the authority’s opposition Conservative group Cllr Alan Lamb has called this review “a complete waste of time and money” after it was revealed that “only three per cent of all respondents wanted to remove a specific statue and only 10 per cent wanted any change to the current statutory or other action.”
The council said:
“As a response to the issues raised globally by the Black Lives Matter movement the Leader of Council asked Honorary Alderwoman Alison Lowe to lead a review of statues in Leeds.
Alderwoman Lowe established a reference group of historians and academics, which was supported by council officers. The review was informed by a public consultation in the summer which elicited 813 responses.
The independent review by Alderwoman Lowe forms Appendix 1 of this report and suggests recommendations for discussion at Executive Board.
In summary, the review concluded that there appeared to be no individuals honoured by statues in Leeds who were known to be directly central to the slave trade.
It was the view of the panel, echoed by the balance of opinion in the public consultation, that all existing statues in Leeds should remain in place.
Whilst there is little appetite amongst the public to remove statues of individuals, the review also recognises that that empire, colonialism and slavery are still prominent influences within the city’s visible heritage that we can see today.
Examples range from the history of Harewood House to a negative and stereotypical representation of an African on an architectural frieze on 18 Park Row.
Whilst elements in the debate around these issues can be quite polarised, there is a general consensus from all sides that education and a balanced understanding of history is of huge importance. With that in mind the review also includes recommendations to review how statues are put into historical context, including through public information boards. It recommends that more can be done to support diversity and inclusion in the city – for instance with regard to future choices about honouring individuals within Leeds. Honorary Alderwoman Lowe’s recommendations are listed in section 1 of this report, with her full review attached as an Appendix.”
3. Vale of Glamorgan Council
Vale of Glamorgan Council has set out “proposals for reviewing statues, monuments, street names and building names”.
“This report sets out proposals for reviewing statues, monuments, street names and building names in the Vale of Glamorgan, in light of the current concerns on the interpretation of some of the names associated some statutes, monuments, street names and buildings. It is proposed that all town and community councils, as well as the public, are invited to make representations for commemorations that should be reviewed to ensure they are appropriate.”
“It is therefore proposed that a review of statues, monuments, street names and building names will be undertaken both from an historic perspective (to ascertain any causes for concern) but also inviting consideration for future recognition of individuals or events that celebrate diversity and important events in our recent history.”
4. Knowsley Council
Knowsley Council is looking to add plaques to “explain Knowsley’s historic links to slavery”. In a statement, Cllr Shelley Powell, Cabinet Member for Communities & Neighbourhoods said:
“Knowsley Council has already made a commitment to acknowledge and explain Knowsley’s historic links to slavery, following research into street names in particular. We recognise that this needs to be done in a thorough, sensitive and appropriate way. This exercise is not merely about installing plaques but engaging with our communities, historians and others, so that we can explain this history and its meaning accurately and widen the understanding of our history and raise further awareness of just how crucial equality is in Knowsley, both now and into the future.
“We will be working closely with members of the community – particularly BAME representatives – on this project. We are already underway with our own research and using own archives and will work with other historians, to ensure we develop an accurate historical context. We will be keeping the community aware of this important work as it develops and will share details of the specific street names and areas of the borough in due course.”
Policy Exchange Call for Evidence
5. Lambeth Council
Lambeth Council has written to the government to protest against planned changes to policies around statues and public heritage. In a letter to Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, councillor Sonia Winifred said:
6. Bradford Council
A Review of Bradford’s statues and monuments has found no direct links to the slave trade.
In a statement, the council said:
A review of statues and monuments across the district was commissioned by the Leader of the Council, Cllr Susan Hinchcliffe, in June 2020. An external steering group was established under the direction of an independent chair, Charles Dacres, in July.
The first stage of the review has been completed and will be published in late November. It involved an audit of statues and monuments across the district and undertook research to identify any links to slavery and colonialism.
The review has not uncovered any direct local links to slavery or slave ownership in our most famous historical figures such as Titus Salt, Joseph Lister or William Forster. However, the wealth produced through slavery funded key aspects of technology in the industrial revolution and so forms the backdrop to our local story and should be recognised.
The review is also uncovering more about the important contribution that black people have made to the Bradford District that needs to be highlighted and celebrated.
The review has uncovered a picture of Bradford as a stronghold of non-conformist philanthropists, many of whom were abolitionists, and as a place that has produced examples of pioneering work in terms of diversity that we can be proud of.
In common with the rest of the country, the review has recognised that much of the wealth of individual families, businesses, institutions and the monarchy during Britain’s colonial period is reflected in Bradford’s history and in the buildings and monuments to ‘famous’ people across the district.
Charles Dacres, independent chair of the review, said: “This review will not only help us place our district’s statues in context, but will help us understand much more about the contribution black people have made to the history of Bradford. What we have found so far is that the main historical figures who feature as public statues have strong links to cultural, social and scientific advancement that show Bradford in a positive light. But we need to better recognise and explain the wider history of our district and the major role that people from our black and other diverse communities have made to that. How we do that will form the second part of the review.”
Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe, Leader of Bradford Council, said: “I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the first phase of this hugely important review. Statues and monuments of historical figures occupy a powerful place in civic life. Since the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, people have rightly questioned why the statue of a slave trader should stand in a public place in 21st century Britain.
“The review will help us understand not just our statues, but also the major contribution black people have made to our district’s history. We know this is an untold story in Bradford and recognising this contribution is vital. They are stories we want to tell more fully through educational tools and materials, and through our museums. It must not ignore or excuse atrocities that are linked to slavery and colonialism which are part of Britain’s past.”
“I would like to see this work continue, celebrating our diverse local history will make us a more confident city, proud of our place in the world. We have an ambition to do more about the People’s History of Bradford and this review has been an excellent opportunity to start to make that ambition a reality.”
7. Exeter University
The College of Humanities at the University of Exeter is recruiting an Anti-Racism Coordinator to lead and develop “the College’s work in key areas […] including initiatives to decolonise the curriculum”.
The role of the College Anti-Racism Coordinator will include:
“Leading and developing the College’s work in key areas (which might include – but is not limited to – initiatives to decolonise the curriculum; policies on student support; or steps to tackle the BAME Pay Gap)”
Policy Exchange Call for Evidence
8. Museum of the Home
Protesters have sprayed graffiti on the Museum of the Home, formerly known as the Geffrye Museum. The message read: ‘Blood on his hands is blood of our ancestors’.
In a statement, the Museum said:
“This weekend the Museum gates and the statue of Robert Geffrye were damaged. We are investigating what happened and have reported the damage to the police.
The Board and Museum team are continuing to explore a number of options for the statue that are curatorially best suited to the Museum and our communities.”
In a separate incident, protestors used a projector to illuminate the front of the museum with statements such as “Hackney Has Spoken”, “Geffrye Must Fall”, “Stand Up To Racism” and “Black Lives Matter.” A statement on behalf of Hackney North MP Diane Abbott was read out to protesters:
“It is a disgrace that the Museum of the Home has still not removed the statue of the slave trader Sir Robert Geffrye. Having changed its name, the Museum board should now take this statue down.
“Geffrye made his fortune trading in slaves. It is quite wrong that a man who made his fortune out of the broken bodies of tens of thousands of Africans should be glorified in any way, and specifically by this statue.
“The majority of people in Hackney surveyed want this statue taken down. The Museum board should listen to those people and not bend the knee to Tory culture secretary Oliver Dowden and do the right thing by removing this statue of Sir Robert Geffrye.”
Source: Policy Exchange Call for Evidence
Museum of the Home lit up by Geffrye Must Fall as campaign continues
9. Colston Statue, Bristol
The Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, has said the Statue of Edward Colston would “be on display by early next year” in a Bristol Museum. During an interview with Greatest Hits Radio South West on 30th October, he said:
“It’s just about getting all the processes around it right and there’s been some work on the statue to make sure it doesn’t further corrode.
“It has to be cleaned up. Obviously it won’t be fixed – the dent will be in it.
“The paint will be on it.
“The placards will be around it. So, the museum team is just going through that process now, but it will be on display.”
“Whether you agreed with it being hauled down or not [and the] full circle of world history to have someone who made so much wealth from the kidnapping, [being thrown] overboard.
“The robbery of hope from tens of thousands or 80 odd thousand people, to see the place of that honour hauled down and rolled down the streets – again whether you agree with that or not, to see that poetry to me is pretty obvious.
“But as a mayor I cannot condone criminal damage. It was criminal damage, but I would never pretend that I didn’t think that, that was almost musical.”
“Yes, it was symbolic, but no one turned up to my office the next day with a memo telling me anything had changed on [the topic of] school exclusions, criminal justice, poverty, mental health, educational outcomes, unemployment levels – nothing.
“So, again we have to always be careful that the symbolic – particularly when it’s really dramatic – does not consume the whole bandwidth for the conversation because otherwise we think ‘Oh, well we did this amazing thing and nothing changed’ – yeah, nothing changed because we pointed [out the] symbolic act rather than the absolute substance.
“And, remember too that the name of Colston Hall was changed, now as Bristol Beacon. And again, that was actually the big aim in many ways.
“It was this music venue in the middle of the city that has captured nowhere near the level of interest. Why? Because it wasn’t pulled down.
“Because it maybe happened in an orderly [manner] in which people were consulted.
“So, in some sense, what we’re caught up with is the event, not just the act of changing a name. We can get caught up in events.”
10. Historic Royal Palaces
Historic Royal Palaces have announced a review into residences’ links to slavery and plans for “more inclusive storytelling”. In an interview with The Times, Lucy Worsley, chief curator of the charity, said:
We’ve been thinking really hard and planning all sorts of changes,”
“The time has come. We’re behind. We haven’t done well enough.”
“It is always great to push people a bit into an uncomfortable and darker direction, because then you can see the historical causes of things like social injustice.”
Historic Royal Houses have given more information on Twitter:
11. Curriculum Impartiality – Minister for Equalities
The Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch MP, has said schools promoting partisan political views are breaking the law.
“Lots of pernicious stuff is being pushed, and we stand against that. We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”