The cost of history
26 April 2023
Identifying risks to some of our controversial historic assets.
It’s clear that people of all ages are concerned about Britain’s colonial past and feel passionately about figures in our history whose ancestors had connections to slavery. In recent years, there have been vibrant debates about the removal of statues and artefacts in locations across the country.
While some figures may be particularly shocking, such as Colston, and some the victim of pranks that have become folklore, such as the traffic cone upon the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow, others will be less obvious. Take, for example, the campaign to rename Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, North Wales after some objections were raised regarding the liberal prime minister’s family links to the slave trade.
It’s tempting to view these campaigns for statue removal to be bound up in the trend for cancel culture, but this would be a mistake. The removal of Confederate monuments and memorials has been an ongoing process in the United States since the 1960s, though many of these monuments have been re-sited rather than destroyed. So, what can be done to protect historical assets?
It’s very difficult to protect against a threat that, stoked by social media campaigns, is fluid. In identifying the threat, it’s critical that a varied assessment panel contribute to understanding it; a mix of ages and a diverse cultural cross-section will ensure a range of insights and challenges. It’s also important to consider incidents that have occurred in the past, and make sure that the analysis incorporates all the ‘what if’ scenarios.
Assess precious possessions
The next step is to consider what assets, artefacts, statues, building names, names of roads might be threatened. Consider adding a scale of threat or a ‘weighting’ to that assessment. Can the item be dragged into a harbour? Does the artefact have an iconic backdrop? Has there been a history of incidents? Have similar locations been used in the past? How would it look for the organisation if a statue were covered in paint?
Not everything can be protected at the same time, prioritisation is essential. In response to understanding the threat, works of art and artefacts that can be moved, should be moved – or at least plans drawn up to understand how this can be done if the situation escalates. Prevention measures can be adjusted, increased intelligence sharing with civilian police can be introduced and, ultimately, additional security can be engaged.
Engage sensibly with social media
There’s always a risk that, caught up in the social media frenzy, organisations might jump the gun and overreact when there’s no objective cry for change. Referring back to Gladstone’s Library, while the family did not object to the removal of his statue, petitions to retain the statue rapidly eclipsed demands to the contrary. Social media messaging should be used to support any decision making, but with caution.
Whether it’s the return of the Elgin Marbles or the Benin Bronzes, repatriation of cultural heritage is here to stay. Tied into the politics of identity and fed by an increasing will to recognise and acknowledge the sins of our ancestors, the threat to our national collections and risk to our assets looks set to remain.