As publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics. The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country. 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.
So wrote the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, in a letter to 26 cultural institutions, including the British Museum, on 22 September 2020. He added that impartiality ‘is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised’ – implying, according to some, that those who disobey risk losing their grant-in-aid.
The letter refers specifically to the ‘removal of statues or other similar objects’ – a comment that alludes to the toppling in Bristol of the statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721), though some newspapers interpreted this as a covert reference to the British Museum’s decision to move the terracotta portrait bust of the founder, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), from its place of honour in the Enlightenment Gallery to a nearby cabinet. BM Director Hartwig Fischer defended this action, saying: ‘We have pushed him off the pedestal where nobody looked at him, and placed him in the limelight’ – that is to say, to a case ‘dedicated to Hans Sloane and his relationship to slavery.’
Context is all
The Secretary of State’s letter goes on to advise against removing ‘difficult and contentious’ heritage because this ‘risks harming our understanding of our collective past’. Rather than erasing these objects,
we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be. Our aim should be to use them to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.
That is, surely, what the British Museum has done with the bust of Hans Sloane, but Sherds wonders if this is enough. Nobody with even a half-serious interest in history can be ignorant of the evils of slavery and colonial exploitation (and could Sherds put in a plea here for many other exploited people: the child miners and mill-workers of the Industrial Revolution, the farm labourers and crofters dispossessed by the enclosure movement or the Highland clearances, press-ganged sailors and conscripted soldiers, not to mention the millions murdered in the Holocaust, nor the millions who still live in slavery and repression around the world).
Historians and archaeologists have long been assiduous at contextualising and interpreting the past with objectivity – the gung-ho Boy’s Own version of history did not by much survive the First World War (except perhaps in the pages of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia), and even Batman and Spider-Man now have backstories revealing their darker side. How else would anyone have been able to produce a report like that of the National Trust, whose recently published study of the connections between its historic places and colonialism and historic slavery is based almost entirely on published sources – none of the evidence in the report was in any sense ‘hidden’ or ‘suppressed’? (You can download the report from www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/addressing-the-histories-of-slavery-and-colonialism-at-the-national-trust.)
Vice and virtue
The public response to the National Trust’s report, however, suggests that contextualisation alone is not enough. Visitors seem not to be interested in lessons in virtue – when they visit a museum or stately home they just want to see the bling (the stuff that middle-class people call ‘exquisite’ and young people call ‘amaaaazing’). No, you have to make it both easy and unavoidable for people to confront the historic truth, and Sherds has a suggestion, inspired in part by artist Marc Quinn and in part by a pair of Romanesque fonts. Marc Quinn was the artist who placed a resin statue of the Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid on the Bristol pedestal that had previously been occupied by Edward Colston. The fonts are to be found in St Peter’s Church, Southrop, in Gloucestershire, and in St Leonard’s Church, Stanton Fitzwarren, in Wiltshire. Both depict the eight Virtues trampling on, or thrusting a spear into the mouth of, their antipodal vice: thus, Temperencia defeats Luxuria and Humilitas overcomes Superbia.
Following their example, Sherds would like the Secretary of State to announce a flowering of new public monuments commemorating a much more diverse range of people who represent the virtues we admire and wish to emulate – people who have contributed in some important way to human well- being. People like Edith Cavell, executed at dawn on 12 October 1915 for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides in the First World War, and whose quietly dignified statue stands in St Martin’s Place, just north of London’s Trafalgar Square. Ideally these new works – commissioned from the many artists suffering enforced poverty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – should be positioned in dynamic juxtaposition to memorials celebrating people commemorated simply for being rich, titled, or credited with great victories (often based on other people’s self-sacrifice and bravery in war).
The National Trust has already set a good example along these lines. For the last five years, it has commissioned works from local artists acknowledging that the Victorian grandeur and fine interiors of present-day Penrhyn Castle (Gwynedd) were paid for from the proceeds of exploitation – first from the Pennant family’s Jamaican sugar estates and then from slate quarries where the 2,800-strong workforce went on strike for higher wages in November 1900, leading to a three-year lockout that is still the longest industrial dispute on record. By acknowledging these events through art and installations, the National Trust has added new layers of significance to the castle, and attracted local people – who had previously refused for a century or more ever to step over the castle’s threshold – to take back what they now regard as their heritage.
In and out of fashion
On the subject of the vocabulary of the young, the staff of a research company called Perspectus Global have been using their lockdown time to find out what words are likely to drop out of use because they are no longer used by 18- to 30-year-olds. Their headline-grabbing conclusion was that a large number of young people have no idea what is meant by ‘sozzled’, ‘plonk’, or ‘cad’ – clearly, they are not Private Eye readers. They also claimed not to know the meaning of ‘bonk’, ‘nincompoop’, ‘balderdash’, ‘tosh’, ‘bounder’, and ‘kerfuffle’. Since these are the sort of words that feature prominently in the Prime Minister’s vocabulary, he might like to consider whether he is getting through to younger voters.
It is hard to believe that young people are ignorant of some of the words in the list: ‘lush’, for example, is, after all, the name of a popular brand of ethical cosmetics, much patronised by the young and environmentally aware. One hears ‘wally’ and ‘brill’ being used all the time in overheard conversations and banter. It is less surprising to see that ‘betrothed’, ‘henceforth’, and ‘trollop’ are no longer familiar – these archaic words sound as if they might have come from the time of William Gladstone or a novel by, well, Anthony Trollope.
Sherds could add a few contenders to the list. It is rare that anyone says ‘bequeathed’ or ‘donated’ any more – everything is now ‘gifted’. And ‘artwork’, which used to mean the pasted-up type and images that are photographed to create offset litho printing plates, is now used to refer to any and every work of art. To Sherds’ old-fashioned ears, describing a work of artistic genius by Michelangelo as an ‘artwork’ is demeaning, to say the least.
‘Disco’ is a surprising inclusion in the list of unfamiliar words, but when the Sherds children were consulted, they were firm in their conviction that it was a very dated term. However, they also affirmed that words can return from oblivion to common parlance: the Beatles’ favourite word of approval – ‘cool’ – is one example. And when they do return to popular use, they often have the opposite meaning to their original definition. Thus ‘gay’ – a word that once got a Radio 1 ‘disc jockey’ (another dated term?) into trouble when used in a pejorative sense – is now used as a term of approval: gay is cool! So perhaps, at some future date, to describe somebody as ‘a cad sozzled on plonk’ might mean they are a picture of health and moral rectitude thanks to a lifelong mineral-water habit.