Government ‘pressured’ Hoxton museum into keeping slaver statue, documents reveal

The Museum of the Home, formerly the Geffrye Museum. Picture: The Museum of the Home

The Museum of the Home, formerly the Geffrye Museum. Picture: The Museum of the Home - Credit: Geffrye archives

Documents released by the Museum of the Home (MotH) have revealed the governmental pressure it came under to retain the statue of slave trader Sir Robert Geffrye.

The documents, released by MotH following a request from local youth worker Luke Billingham, show 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.

Mr Dowden stressed 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.

Additionally, Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott called out Shah directly, saying 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 spaces in the borough, said: “As I read the communications between the Geffrye (MOtH) 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.”

He described it as a “backward-looking form of bourgeois cultural purism”.

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“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.”

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 Mr Dowden’s letter and concern over its funding status had affected its decision.

The documents show museum director Sonia Solicari warned 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 said 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 a widely-circulated petition on 38 Degrees.

READ MORE: Backlash as Hoxton’s Museum of the Home announces slave trader Geffrye’s statue will stay putWhen the MotH was preparing responses to any potential questions around the decision, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) blocked it from releasing 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”.

However, the DCMS did say the final choice remained in MotH’s hands.

The culture secretary’s letter to Shah reads: “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.” It says though “we may now disagree” with historical objects created by previous generations, “they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults”.

“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 Mr Dowden wrote to other government-funded cultural arms-length bodies.

Mr Agbetu stressed that, while he did not believe 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.

Cllr Williams said: “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.”

A DCMS spokesperson said: “The government supports the MotH’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.”

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