The British Museum says that it has ‘no intention of removing controversial objects from display’ – after it received a warning letter from the Government over the issue.
In a leaked letter, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said that Government-funded museums and galleries risk losing taxpayer support if they remove artefacts.
The missive, sent to several institutions, said: ‘As publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.
He urged institutions to ‘continue to act impartially’, something he described as ‘especially important’ as the Government conducts its Comprehensive Spending Review – an apparent threat that funding could be at risk.
The British Museum said in a statement: ‘The British Museum has no intention of removing controversial objects from public display.
‘Instead, it will seek where appropriate to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety.’
The British Museum says that it has ‘no intention of removing controversial objects from display’. Pictured: The ‘Elgin Marbles’ on display at the British Museum in London
Mr Dowden’s letter, seen by the Sunday Telegraph, comes after a summer of cultural clashes over Britain’s colonial past.
A leaked letter from Oliver Dowden to museums and galleries has warned them against removing statues
Recipients included the British Museum, Tate galleries, Imperial War museums, National Portrait Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, the Royal Armouries, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Library.
Mr Dowden said in the letter sent last week: ‘The Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects.
‘Historic England, as the Government’s adviser on the historic environment, have said that removing difficult and contentious parts of it risks harming our understanding of our collective past.’
The letter continued: ‘As publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.
‘The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country.
‘It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question.
‘This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.’
The four-ton, 7ft 10in Hoa Hakananai’a is regarded as one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island’s 900 famous stone monoliths, or moai. Pictured: The ancestor figure stands at the entrance to the Wellcome gallery in the British Museum
The letter stated that ‘rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be’.
It recently redisplayed its bust of Hans Sloane, its slave-owning founding father.
It was juxtaposed with objects to reflect the fact that Sloane’s collection was created in the context of the British Empire and the slave economy.
After ten days of fierce fighting in Benin, the British burnt down the palace and looted the royal treasures: delicate ivory carvings and magnificent copper alloy sculptures and plaques – now known as the Benin Bronzes.
The Museum said it ‘continues to acknowledge Sloane’s radical vision of universal free public access to a national museum collection and the public benefit that is generated through the British Museum’.
A row over Britain’s colonial past erupted in June as protests saw a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston toppled in Bristol.
The bronze statue of the 17th century figure was pulled down with ropes, dragged through the streets and thrown into the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest.
The letter comes after well-known music venue, named after 17th century slave trader Edward Colston, was recently renamed Bristol Beacon.
A summer of cultural clashes in the UK saw a statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston toppled in Bristol and thrown into the city’s harbour
A statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, Westminster, was also daubed with graffiti amid wider calls for controversial figures to have their statues taken down.
Boris Johnson hit out at the demands to remove statues at the time as he said ‘we cannot now try to edit or censor our past’.
The Prime Minister said the UK ‘cannot pretend to have a different history’ and that the statues ‘teach us about our past, with all its faults’.
Earlier this month the Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg blasted the National Trust for not realising ‘how wonderful’ Churchill was after it included his home on its ‘woke’ list of houses with historic links to slavery.
Last month, the British Museum has removed a bust of its founder from a pedestal and labelled him a ‘slave owner’.
The effigy of Sir Hans Sloane will now be housed in a display alongside artefacts that explain his legacy in the ‘exploitative context of the British Empire’, curators said.
Sloane, whose 71,000 artefacts became the starting point of the British Museum after he left them to the state in his will, funded his collecting through his wife’s family’s sugar plantation. Sloane Square in London is also named after him.
The British Museum’s most controversial artefacts
Elgin Marbles: The Elgin Marbles are a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures, inscriptions and architectural members that were mostly created by Phidias and his assistants.
The 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, removed the Parthenon Marble pieces from the Acropolis in Athens while serving as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803.
In 1801, the Earl claimed to have obtained a permit from the Ottoman authorities to remove pieces from the Parthenon.
As the Acropolis was still an Ottoman military fort, Elgin required permission to enter the site.
His agents subsequently removed half of the surviving sculptures, as well as architectural members and sculpture from the Propylaea and Erechtheum.
The excavation and removal was completed in 1812 at a personal cost of around £70,000.
The sculptures were shipped to Britain, but in Greece, the Scots aristocrat was accused of looting and vandalism.
They were bought by the British Government in 1816 and placed in the British Museum. They still stand on view in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.
Greece has sought their return from the British Museum through the years, to no avail.
The authenticity of Elgin’s permit to remove the sculptures from the Parthenon has been widely disputed, especially as the original document has been lost. Many claim it was not legal.
However, others argue that since the Ottomans had controlled Athens since 1460, their claims to the artefacts were legal and recognisable.
The Benin Bronzes: In 1897, a British naval expedition was raised to avenge the deaths of nine officers killed during a trade dispute between the king of Benin and Britain. Britain sent a force of 500 men to destroy Benin.
After ten days of fierce fighting, the British burnt down the palace and looted the royal treasures: delicate ivory carvings and magnificent copper alloy sculptures and plaques – now known as the Benin Bronzes.
After the sacking of Benin, the bronzes were taken by the British to pay for the expedition.
One of them, a bronze cockerel, ended up being a permanent fixture in the dining hall at Jesus College, Cambridge.
Many people have campaigned for the cockerel to be returned over the years and in November last year, Cambridge University agreed to return it to Nigeria.
One campaigner was BBC historian David Olusoga who said The British Museum should have a ‘Supermarket Sweep’ where countries have two minutes to take back their artefacts.
Rosetta Stone: One of the most famous objects in the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab. There is a decree written on it about the king, which is inscribed three times. In hieroglyphics, Demotic and Ancient Greek.
It is thought to have been found by accident in Egypt in 1799 by Napoleon’s army while digging the foundations of an addition to a fort near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.
When Napoleon was defeated, the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801 meant the stone because British property, along with other things the French had found. It was shipped to England, arriving in Portsmouth in February 1802.
Hoa Hakananai’a: The four-ton, 7ft 10in Easter Island statue is regarded as one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island’s 900 famous stone monoliths, or moai.
Each of the figures is said to embody tribal leaders or deified ancestors.
It was taken from the island, which lies in the Pacific more than 2,100 miles off the coast of Chile, in 1868 by Commodore Richard Powell, captain of HMS Topaze, who gave it to Queen Victoria.
She donated it in 1869 to the British Museum, where it now stands at the entrance to Wellcome Trust Gallery.
But Easter Island’s indigenous community, the Rapa Nui, want Britain to give back the spiritually ‘unique’ effigy.
Governor Tarita Alarcon Rapu found the sight of the artefact so emotional that she burst into tears as she begged the museum to return it.