Can museums survive the culture wars?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


The scandal of the British Museum inside-job theft might well suggest that documenting, preserving and displaying artefacts is no longer museums’ top priority. Certainly, the traditional function of museums – centred around scholarly research and the exhibition of significant objects from past human civilisations – is under strain. Most museums have now taken on a different role: embracing a responsibility to confront historical injustices, offering apologies for past transgressions and warning about the malevolent associations of objects with colonialism, slavery, the oppression of women or even the challenges of climate change.

Critics fear that the consequence of this reading of history backwards might be the perversion of scholarship. Cambridge University’s archaeology museum got into hot water for displaying signs explaining the ‘misleading impression’ of the whiteness and ‘absence of diversity’ in the ancient world among its ancient sculpture plaster casts, seeking to recast Greek and Roman civilisation as the cradle of modern racism. Indeed, some curators now seek to ‘queer’ their collections, or find the roots of transgender people in ancient times. So much so that Portsmouth’s Mary Rose Museum now identifies nit combs found on Henry VIII’s ship that sank in 1545 (used by sailors to scrape insect infestations from their hair) as ‘queer objects’ which show ‘how hair is central to LGBTQ identity’.

Many museums now seem to work on the principle that historical figures should be judged and, where necessary, condemned for their ‘racism’ or ‘transphobia’. For some, this is a necessary step to reveal the ‘whole picture’ of history, unearthing truths about individuals and their actions which had hitherto been whitewashed. But in the process, they risk tarnishing the reputations of long-dead philanthropists whose collections they are charged with protecting. The curatorial staff at the Wellcome Trust permanently closed their exhibition ‘Medicine Man’, which gathered together objects, paintings and instruments belonging to their benefactor Henry Wellcome. Why? Because staff argued that Wellcome represented ‘a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language’ which would ‘perpetuate[s] the wrong view of history’. The curators asked the existential question: ‘What’s the point of museums?’

How should museums seek to portray the past? Is there a problem with framing objects and figures within a contemporary political framework, or is this necessary for a twenty-first-century public to be able to engage with history, warts and all? What fate awaits the object and the collection in this context? Will the traditional pursuit of neutrality and universalism be compromised if museums are seen to be stoking up cultural and political polarisation? And by taking sides, do museums risk alienating segments of their audience who hold differing viewpoints, leading to a decline in public trust and support?

Denise Fahmy
director, Freedom in the Arts

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Strangers and Intimates (forthcoming) and Keeping Their Marbles

Dr Zareer Masani
historian, author, journalist, broadcaster

Emma Webb
writer, broadcaster and presenter; director, Common Sense Society, UK branch; fellow, New Culture Forum

Dr Wendy Earle
writer; convenor, Arts and Society Forum; former impact development officer, Birkbeck, University of London