UK Government Will Announce Plan to “Retain and Explain” Controversial Monuments - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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UK Government Will Announce Plan to “Retain and Explain” Controversial Monuments

UK Government Will Announce Plan to “Retain and Explain” Controversial Monuments

Echoing the heated debate over Confederate monuments in the US1, the UK has begun the difficult, and often acrimonious, conversation of what to do with public monuments depicting controversial figures. In both countries, a reckoning over racial discrimination has prompted a national reexamination of vaunted public figures who benefited from human exploitation or held discriminatory beliefs.2  Some feel that representation of these figures, including monuments that were raised decades or even centuries ago, must be updated to reflect a modern understanding of racial injustice and its continuing effect on living people.3 Opponents of this view argue this would amount to an erasure of history, and in some instances, a denial of cultural expression.4 A full spectrum of solutions to resolve this tension has been proposed, ranging from total preservation to outright destruction.5 More moderate suggestions include updating monuments with additional information to educate the public or relocating monuments to present them in a new context.6

Against this background, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden is expected to announce a national “retain and explain” policy to the leaders of the National Trust, Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Arts Council England, the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum at a roundtable meeting later this month.7 Dowden’s decision to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down,” is sure to elicit strong reactions from all sides of the conversation.8

British sculptor Nick Hornby voiced sharp opposition to the plan: “[t]he government does not understand how monuments function as visual cues; they are not inert but uphold and reinforce incredibly objectionable ideas: racism, chauvinism, sexism, homophobia.”9 Hornby also points out that a small plaque is easily overlooked when placed next to a monument designed to be seen from far away, and might not be enough to send the right message; “People are busy, people walk fast—they see these things every day in their periphery—and these sculptures unconsciously reinforce ideas that are problematic.”10 In contrast, the Public Statues and Sculpture Association supports the effort to keep monuments where they are, and argues their place in society can be employed as a tool to educate future generations. “If such statues are removed this will leave an historic vacuum of ignorance. We will have manipulated history in the same way these statues have been accused of doing by misrepresenting it.”11

Curiously, the fate of contested monuments is not always dictated by the government. In June of 2020, a group of protestors tore down a statute of Edward Colston, a 17th century merchant, philanthropist, and member of Parliament involved in the Atlantic slave trade.12 After unsuccessfully petitioning the local government for lawful removal of the statue, protestors took matters into their own hands, disposing of the statue in the Bristol Harbor, and leaving behind a graffitied plinth that still stands today.13 Events such as this were surely in legislators’ minds when the government announced new legislation last month to provide protections for historic monuments in England.14 Regarding Dowden’s new plan, cultural institutions risk losing substantial government funding for failing to comply, restricting these institutions’ ability to craft independent responses to the controversy.15 A museum advocacy group responded that this violates a long-standing principal that museums retain freedom to control their own operations at arm’s length from the government.16 Whatever the status quo may have been, it is unlikely that Parliament will loosen its grip while monuments occupy such an important role in the ongoing debate over culture and identity.

  1. See Josh Sanburn, A Confederate Monument Solution, With Context, Time (Jun. 22, 2017 6:41 AM), []

  2. Sonia Elks, Toppling of UK Statue Fuels Debate on Monuments to Slave Traders, Reuters (Jun. 8, 2020 1:43 PM), [].

  3. See Sanburn, supra note 1.

  4. See Aimee Ortiz & Johnny Diaz, George Floyd Protests Reignite Debate Over Confederate Statues, N.Y. Times (Jun. 3, 2020), [].

  5. See id.

  6. Id.

  7. Gareth Harris, Keep Problematic Monuments and ‘Explain Them’, UK Government to Tell Cultural Leaders, ArtNewspaper (Feb. 15, 2021, 12: 21 GMT), [].

  8. Id.

  9. Id.

  10. Id.

  11. Id.

  12. Elks, supra note 2.

  13. Nora McGreevy, British Protesters Throw Statue of Slave Trader Into Bristol Harbor, Smithsonian Mag. (Jun. 10, 2020), [].

  14. Gareth Harris, UK Government Announces New Laws to Protect Controversial Historic Monuments from ‘Woke Worthies and Baying Mobs’, ArtNewspaper (Jan. 18, 2021, 12:04 GMT),

  15. Harris, supra note 7.

  16. Id.

Lawrence Keating

Lawrence Keating is a third-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law, a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal, and President of the Fordham Art Law Society. He holds a B.B.A. in Finance from the College of William & Mary, and a minor in Art & Art History.