There have always been “woke” students—the problem is their elders

‘The people running these institutions—they’re the people who are actually cancelling the songs, renaming the buildings and withdrawing the paintings’

Dominic Sandbrook

The golden-haired young man stares out of the painting, the very picture of aristocratic hauteur. Far below, a servant presents him with a silver bowl of oranges and lemons. This is Robert Greville, 4th Baron Brooke, who lived through the Restoration and died in 1677. For years his portrait has been on show at his family seat, Warwick Castle. Or rather, it was.

A few days ago, two young historians, Adam Busiakiewicz and Aaron Manning, blew the whistle on Warwick Castle. In secret, they revealed, the castle’s operators, Merlin Entertainments, had taken down the painting. The servant, you see, is black. In Merlin’s words, they felt they had to be “sensitive in the light of increased awareness of historical links to the slave trade”.

Tempting as it is to get stuck into Merlin Entertainments, there is obviously a bigger issue here. For in their peculiarly fatheaded way, Merlin were merely following the crowd. So in the last few weeks, to pick examples from just one short period, the BBC shot themselves in the foot by trying to ditch “Rule, Britannia” from the Proms, the National Trust published a dossier of 93 country houses linked to slavery and colonialism, Oxford’s Pitt Rivers museum withdrew its supposedly racist shrunken heads, and Edinburgh University even renamed its David Hume Tower because his views of Africans “rightly cause distress today”. Not even being one of the greatest philosophers of all time is enough to save you any more.

The obvious reaction to all this is to blame the “woke” students and Black Lives Matter activists who have dominated recent headlines. But I think that’s a mistake. There have always been woke students, even if the word itself is new; and there have always been militant activists. Fair enough. You might not agree with them, but they have their place in a democratic society.

No, they’re not the problem. The problem is their elders, the people running these institutions. They’re the people who are actually cancelling the songs, renaming the buildings and withdrawing the paintings. And they’re the people who should be getting the flak directed at the students on the other side of the plate-glass windows.

It’s sometimes said that the directors of our cultural institutions are running scared. The admirable Trevor Phillips, for example, suggests that the BBC tried to pull “Rule, Britannia” because its upper echelons consisted of “rooms full of white men panicking that someone is going to think they are racist”. But I’m not sure about that. Are the people running these institutions really panicking? Are they appeasing the mob? Or are they actually exploiting the BLM hysteria to do something they had always wanted to do anyway?

That, I think, is a more persuasive explanation of what’s happening. Take, for example, the withdrawal of the Pitt Rivers Museum’s shrunken human heads, which were made by the Shuar and Achuar peoples of Ecuador and Peru. They didn’t come down because visitors disliked them. In fact, they were the museum’s single most popular attraction.

In a statement, the museum explained that “standing in front of the case, people would talk about the people who had made them as ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’”. How do they know? This strikes me as a preposterous claim. I’ve been taking my son to the Pitt Rivers since he was a toddler, and I never heard anybody talking about “savages”. In any case, who on earth accuses their own visitors of being closet racists?

I looked up the museum’s director, Laura Van Broekhoven, and the explanation was right there in her profile. Her interests, she says, are “collaborative museological praxis, repatriation and redress, and the queering of binaries and boundaries with relation to social inclusion”. (No, I’m not making this up.) To put that into plain English, she probably always wanted to get rid of the heads, and she probably wants rid of lots of other things, too.

By the standards of her museum’s visitors, I think it’s a fair assumption that Dr Van Broekhoven is pretty unusual. Even in Oxford, there are only so many people into queering binaries and boundaries. Presumably that’s why she thinks we ordinary punters are all reactionary racists.

But by the standards of her peers, she’s absolutely normal. Her Pitt Rivers curatorial colleague Dan Hicks, Oxford’s professor of “contemporary archaeology”, has just finished a book entitled The Brutish Museums, devoted to “colonial violence and cultural restitution”. On Twitter, the National Trust’s chief curator Sally Anne Huxtable proclaims that “now is a transformational time for the whole of society, and that includes the Trust”—or at least she did, until somebody noticed and she took it down. And the author of the National Trust’s much-mocked colonial country houses report, Professor Corinne Fowler, quite seriously believes that “the countryside is one of the last bastions of Empire”. Do they still wear pith helmets in St Mary Mead?

Much of the media, then, has this the wrong way round. The students, the BLM protesters, the screaming kids—they’re not the story. They’re merely a pretext, a smokescreen. The real story is the colossal gulf between the people running our cultural institutions on the one hand, and the Great British Public on the other. The professors, the curators, the directors, the chief executives: they are the minority driving this latter-day Reformation, this war on graven images to cleanse Britain of its ancestral sins. And when you glance at the Dave Spartish effusions on their social media accounts, it’s clear that they’re not going to stop. Why would they? Like their 16th-century forerunners, they believe they are doing God’s work.

How to fight back? That is the question. We could vote with our feet; but how many of us are genuinely going to stop going to museums? (The toilets are free, and the cafés are usually pretty good.) We could laugh at them, as many of us do. But these people seem entirely humourless, so that probably won’t work. The Government? There’s only so much it can do, and it has rather bigger things to worry about. So should we just wait for a new generation of sane curators? Perhaps. But by then, it may be too late. Perhaps my son and I will never again lay eyes on an Ecuadorian tribesman’s shrunken head. What a depressing thought that is.

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