Local protests are planned after documents released by the Museum of the Home (MotH) revealed the pressure the institution came under from the government to retain the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, who made money from the enforced labour and trading of enslaved African people.
The documents, released by MotH following a request from local youth worker Luke Billingham, show that culture minister Oliver Dowden set out his opposition to the statue’s removal in a letter to the chair of the museum’s Board of Trustees, Dr Samir Shah.
Dowden stressed that he would expect the museum to be “mindful” of its position “as a government-funded organisation”.
The revelations saw an instant backlash from local campaigners, with Hackney Stand Up To Racism planning an ’emergency demonstration’ at MotH and local MP Diane Abbott calling out Shah directly, saying that he “should be ashamed of giving in to government pressure”.
Community educator Toyin Agbetu, a member of the community steering group taking part in the council’s ongoing review into the names of public space in the borough, said: “This news confirms that the artificial clash of the civilisations we are observing over similar related issues is a cultural war of distraction of the government’s own making.
“As I read the communications between the Geffrye and government, it revealed that the culture minister Oliver Dowden was more concerned with preserving a monument that literally celebrates the history of Britain’s slaving past than developing assets that accurately reflect the reality of British society and culture as it exists today.
“It’s a backward-looking form of bourgeois cultural purism normally practiced by racists who feel threatened by the call for progressive change made by movements like Black Lives Matter.
“I interpret the statement, which explicitly highlights the fact that the Geffrye as a government-funded organisation is expected to be mindful of choosing to remove the statue, as a threat. The instruction telling the Geffrye staff to contact the government first if they go against its dictates was chilling.”
When approached for comment on the release of the documents, a spokesperson for MotH said: “Since we announced the Board’s decision not to remove the statue, the response has made the Board reflect further. They are considering the responses and discussing the decision with community and creative partners.”
MotH was unable to confirm whether or not concern over the status of its funding as a result of Dowden’s letter had played a part in its decision.
The documents show museum director Sonia Solicari warning the government that not removing the statue, after a public consultation overwhelmingly demanded it come down, would place the institution in an “extremely compromised position”.
Solicari added that the debate around the statue had been “a really traumatic time” for MotH, due to the museum’s appearance on sites such as Topple the Racists and the widely-circulated petition on 38 Degrees.
In preparing responses to questions being sent around the decision, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) blocked the museum from releasing the fact that they had considered the views of the culture secretary, “in order to avoid suggesting that the Secretary of State or Department was involved in the decision directly”.
On clarifying with the government whether the letter from Dowden removed decision-making power from the museum, the DCMS wrote back that the final choice remained in MotH’s hands.
The culture secretary’s letter to Shah reads: “You play a crucial role in conserving our heritage assets, caring for our national collections, providing access to knowledge and leading efforts to offer cultural education to all. I am aware that the issues of contested heritage provoke strongly held views, and that right now these issues will be in the forefront of your minds. I therefore wanted to share with you the government’s position on these issues.
“The government believes that it is always legitimate to examine and debate Britain’s history, but that removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach.
“Confronting our past may be difficult at times but, as the Prime Minister has stated, we cannot pretend to have a different history. Historical objects were created by previous generations, who often had different perspectives and different understandings of right and wrong. 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.
“I understand that as national organisations you have an important role to play in facilitating and contributing to these timely debates. As a government-funded organisation, I would expect you to be mindful of the above approach, which has been agreed with Historic England. If you plan to make any statements or actions in relation to this issue, please contact DCMS in advance of doing so.”
The correspondence also shows that Dowden wrote to other government-funded cultural arms-length bodies such as MotH.
Agbetu stressed that, while he did not believe that pressure from government “absolved the staff from acting morally”, he recognised that MotH had been placed in “an untenable position”.
He added: “The government seems to have spent an extraordinary amount of time and resources bullying and cajoling charities to protect symbols that memorialise and celebrate toxic values of an age long gone.
“Instead, ministers like Oliver Dowden and his colleagues should have been using that energy to lead in saving the lives, protecting the livelihoods, and securing the wellbeing of the UK’s most vulnerable, especially those from minority ethnic communities.”
The documents’ contents also drew swift condemnation from Hackney’s equalities chief Cllr Carole Williams, who spoke at a Stand Up To Racism protest at the museum gates earlier in the month, protesting the decision to leave the statue in situ.
Cllr Williams said: “The culture secretary’s intervention here is hugely concerning, and shows just how out of touch the government minister is. By calling on the board members to retain the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, he has shown that he has no understanding of Hackney residents who engaged with Museum of the Home consultation.
“Perhaps more importantly, it shows that the government has no interest in seeing meaningful change many in this country called for following the murder of George Floyd and the protest organised by the Black Lives Matter movement. While we have committed to demonstrating that Hackney is an anti-racist borough, they appear more concerned with maintaining the status quo.
“Given these revelations, there is a clear need for the museum’s board to listen to the community in Hackney and urgently rethink the decision so that statue no longer stands prominently as a monument to slavery, but can be exhibited elsewhere so that our colonial past can be fully understood.”
A spokesperson for Hackney Stand Up To Racism added: “This is a disgusting intervention by the government. We say it is a scandal that the government have directly intervened to keep the statue of a slaver up at a time when they should be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the worse economic crisis since 1929. Join us to demand Geffrye must fall!”
When approached for comment, the DCMS pointed to a statement from Historic England saying that: “Removing difficult and contentious parts of the historic environment would risk harming our understanding of our collective past.”
The department confirmed that the culture secretary wrote to DCMS-sponsored museums and other arm’s length bodies to communicate the government’s position, adding that decisions to remove statues from listed buildings such as MotH would require local authority approval, as well as from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
A spokesperson added: “The government supports the Museum of the Home’s decision. Whilst it is always legitimate to examine Britain’s history, removing statues, artwork and other historical objects is not the right approach. Instead, we should aim to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.
“Publicly funded museums must not remove statues that form part of a listed building or other heritage objects in their care for political or campaigning purposes. They must be seen to be acting impartially, in line with their publicly funded status.”