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Gazette letters: Sir Robert Geffrye statue, toxic air and NSPCC

PUBLISHED: 08:30 06 September 2020

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden arrives in Downing Street,  a cabinet meeting, ahead of MPs returning to Westminster. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Oliver Dowden arrives in Downing Street, a cabinet meeting, ahead of MPs returning to Westminster. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA

PA Wire/PA Images

When Black Lives Matter activists in Bristol took direct action and removed a statue of the Bristol slaver Edward Colston many denounced such behaviour as a ‘diversion’ from the campaign to eradicate racism from society, writes Sasha Simic, Stoke Newington, full address supplied.

Those on the political right condemned it as an attempt to “cancel culture” and “rewrite history”.

Nevertheless, it prompted other institutions to review their own memorials to slavers. A statue to the 18th century slave trader Robert Milligan was removed from its place outside The Museum of London Docklands when officials decided “it was no longer acceptable to the local community” And the trustees of The Museum of the Home (formerly The Geffrye Museum) in Hackney opened a public consultation on the future of the statue of the 16th century slaver Sir Robert Geffrye which stands at the front of the museum.

The trustees acknowledged that Geffrye made his fortune from his shares in the East India Company and the Royal African Company and “profited directly from the buying and selling of human beings” and they admitted “the response (of the consultation) was in favour of removing the statue”. But in late June the board of trustees of The Museum of the Home announced they would not be taking the statue down arguing the issue was “a complex debate, full of nuance and different opinions.”

It has now been revealed that considerable pressure was put on the trustees and staff at the Museum to keep the statue of Robert Geffrye standing on its plinth irrespective of what the people of Hackney desired.

That pressure came from the culture secretary Oliver Dowden. A series of letters and emails from Dowden and his staff at the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) made his “opinion” clear: “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.”

In a barely-disguised reference to the possible consequences if the statue was moved, Dowden reminded the trustees of the museum that they were “a government funded organisation”. The museum also received a follow up communication from the DCMS which asked them to redraft a statement on the statue so that references to Dowden’s direct intervention were removed in favour of a vague allusion to “relevant government agencies”.

Dowden’s intervention meant the museum’s consultation with the people of Hackney over the future of the Geffrye statue was, in the words of its director Sonia Solicari, “extremely compromised.”

Dowden’s part in this matter came to light in the same week that executives in the British Museum announced plans for a historic bust of their founder Hans Sloane. Sloane made his money from enslaved labour on Jamaican sugar plantations. The collection of artifacts he bought with that money provided the foundations for what became The British Museum. Hartwig Fischer, the director of The British Museum, explained Sloane’s bust would be put into a display case in which his involvement in the Jamaican slave trade would fully detailed. Fisher went onto argue:

“We have pushed (Sloane) off the pedestal...Dedication to truthfulness when it comes to history is absolutely crucial...the case dedicated to Hans Sloane and his relationship to slavery is a very important step in this...For the first time, we are bringing this enslaved African story into this conversation. They would not, at that point in time, be able to bring their own voices and narratives to it, other than Sloane himself documenting and writing about it, from his perspective”.

If The British Museum can remove the bust of its founder and put him on display in the institution where his role in the slave trade is made open and transparent, then why can’t The Museum of the Home do the same with their statue of Geffrye? This isn’t about “rewriting history” or “cancelling culture” its about highlighting history, telling the full story and exposing the toxic roots of the “culture” of the British establishment.

Geffrye’s statue should come down and be displayed in The Museum of the Home and his role in the slave trade exposed in the same way that Hans Sloane’s bust will feature in The British Museum. Visitors can then decide whether a man who made his wealth through the brutal enslavement and exploitation of human beings deserves the title “philanthropist”.

Dowden’s is a government which has spent a decade building a “hostile environment” against migrants and refugees. His is a government whose policies led to the Windrush scandal. His is a government led by a man who habitually describes Black children as “piccaninnies” and who has mocked Muslim women who wear the burqa as “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”.

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It doesn’t matter what Dowden wants. The people of Hackney want the statue of the slaver Geffrye to come down. Geffrye will fall.

We have yet more evidence from the Office of National Statistics, suggesting a link between air pollution and higher Covid-19 mortality rates, writes Jennette Arnold OBE, London Assembly Member for North East (Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest).

Toxic air disproportionately affects the poorest in our capital and even before the pandemic, contributed to the premature deaths of almost 10,000 Londoners per year.

This is an awful symptom of social injustice, but with the right political will, we can do something about it.

City Hall figures show that in the wake of the ULEZ and other mayoral schemes coming into force, London has seen a drop in toxic NO2 emissions which is five times greater than other parts of the country.

In this success, when it comes to the air that we breathe, we cannot afford to be complacent.

This is why the government needs to amend its Environment Bill to give cities more funding in this area and allow London to access the Clean Air Fund, so even more can be done at a regional level.

As a volunteer for the NSPCC’s Childline service I have seen first-hand how lockdown has impacted children, writes Michelle Bigwood, volunteer, NSPCC’s Childline base in London.

Combined with the closure of schools and the lack of contact with support networks, many already vulnerable children have been placed at increased risk of mental health difficulties.

Since lockdown began, Childline has delivered 21,827 counselling sessions for support with mental and emotional health issues. It is vital that children know we are still here for them and that Childline can continue to provide a vital lifeline for them.

This is why I am appealing to your readers to remember us in their will this Remember a Charity Week (September 7-13). Leaving a legacy can have an incredible impact – the amount we receive through legacies is the equivalent of the cost of running our Speak out Stay safe programme and Childline combined for a year.

As we move to recovery, we need your help to support children during this challenging situation.

To find out how you can help please call 020 7825 2505 or visit nspcc.org.uk/guardian


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