Retain and explain: Britain says contested statues must stay in place

By Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government said on Thursday that contested statues should be kept in place but complemented with a comprehensive explanation, in guidance reacting to a spate of statue removals during anti-racism protests that swept the world in 2020.

What to do about statues of historical figures such as colonialists or slave traders became a divisive issue in Britain after one was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters in the city of Bristol and others were removed by officials.

Then prime minister Boris Johnson and other ministers denounced this as censorship of history while activists and some public figures said the glorification of such figures in public spaces had to end.

The culture ministry’s new guidance said custodians of contested statues and monuments should comply with the government’s policy to “retain and explain”.

They should put in place “a comprehensive explanation which provides the whole story of the person or event depicted, so that a fuller understanding of the historic context can be known, understood and debated”, the ministry said.

The guidance, which applies to structures in public spaces but not inside museums, said explanations could include alternative media and creative approaches, not just texts.

It also said that if, after careful deliberation, custodians wanted to relocate a statue, they had to submit a planning application, meaning that the local authority would decide.

“I want all our cultural institutions to resist being driven by any politics or agenda and to use their assets to educate and inform rather than to seek to erase the parts of our history that we are uncomfortable with,” Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said in a statement.


Critics of the Conservative government say it has seized on divisive issues to stoke culture wars in the hope of bolstering support from its electoral base at a time of economic hardship when it is trailing the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls.

The Conservatives say they are fighting a far-left agenda that seeks to denigrate Britain and its history.

In one of the defining moments of the Black Lives Matter movement in Britain, protesters tore down a statue of 17th century slave trader and local benefactor Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol harbour in June 2020.

The incident sparked a reckoning with the past in a range of British institutions, and some other monuments were removed in an orderly fashion, including a statue of 18th century slave trader Robert Milligan in London.

However, an attempt to have a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed in Oxford failed.

The controversies echoed debates in other countries, notably the United States where historic statues honouring leaders of Confederate States from the Civil War era have also been contested and removed.

(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Gareth Jones)