Now will we wake up to the culture war being waged at our great historic attractions? As Kew Gardens stands accused of breaking the law in a bid to ‘decolonise’ its glorious collection, CHRISTOPHER HART asks the big question
One by one, like dignified old soldiers mown down by some vicious new machine gun, our most beloved institutions are falling to the dreadful scourge of woke.
A recent victim is the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in South-West London. Some months ago, Kew’s management team announced bizarre plans to ‘decolonise’ its collections.
Now, that decision has been challenged by Ursula Buchan, a historian of gardens. In a report for the Policy Exchange think-tank, Buchan accuses Kew of violating its ‘statutory responsibilities’ and says it may be in breach of the law in engaging in ‘politically charged’ activities that should have no place at a centre for botany.
It’s a cheering moment of resistance — but to be honest, a small one, and one doubts how much effect it will have.
The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in South-West London. Kew’s management team announced bizarre plans to ‘decolonise’ its collections
Yet Kew — which receives half its income from the taxpayer — is not alone. Instead, it is typical of the way so many of our institutions have gone of late, talking in doctrinaire, far-Left terms about ‘climate injustice’ and, in Kew’s case, the need to ‘tackle structural racism in plant and fungal science’.
Can mushrooms really be racist?
Never mind preserving Kew’s magnificent collections bequeathed by their illustrious predecessors. The gardens’ experts seem keener on doing public penance for what they call ‘a legacy that has deep roots in colonialism and racism’.
They represent, they suggest, a ‘beacon of privilege and exploitation’, and they try to make amends by praising Black Lives Matter; a dubious move, considering the violence that has sometimes surrounded that movement.
If the elite and the experts feel so uncomfortable about their ‘privilege’, perhaps they should take a drop in their agreeable salaries? Instead, how much easier it is to kow-tow ostentatiously to the woke ideology, while being sure to hold on to their own power and status.
Take these extraordinary words from Kew Gardens’ Director, Richard Deverell (annual salary 2019-2020, £191,300): ‘I acknowledge that I personally benefit from enormous privilege as Kew’s current white, male director.
‘I acknowledge too how little I understand these issues [racism and colonialism] and their daily consequences on the lives of my black and ethnic minority colleagues, our members and visitors. I approach this subject with humility and caution.’
What exactly is he confessing to? Is it now a sin to be white and male? And how chillingly similar this act of self-abasement sounds to the outlandish confessions of disgraced Communist party members during Stalin’s show trials.
‘Constable’s The Cornfield is a delightful image of old rural England. But beware, art lover. You are no longer allowed to enjoy this lovely work without being reminded it was presented to the Gallery in 1837 by patrons including poet William Wordsworth, who once lived in a house in Dorset, Racedown Lodge, that was owned by a former plantation holder’, writes CHRISTOPHER HART
What we are really witnessing, at Kew and elsewhere, is something Communists call ‘the long march through the institutions’.
French Marxist Herbert Marcuse explained the term in 1972: ‘Working against the established institutions while working within them . . . boring into them,’ he added, suggesting a worm boring into an apple, causing it to rot from within.
After early Marxists failed to stir the working classes to revolution, their successors sought to seize power and overturn society by transforming institutions: schools and universities, the law, the Church, museums, art galleries . . .
Sound familiar? Yes, and disastrously so.
And this is why today, with the Left firmly in control across the public sector, despite the courageous efforts of people such as Ursula Buchan, when we visit some much-loved taxpayer-funded institution for education, enlightenment, solace or beauty, we have the uncanny feeling instead that we are being indoctrinated.
In every case, the true and original purpose of the institution has been corrupted by wokery.
History buffs might go to the Imperial War Museum, art lovers to the National Gallery, gardeners to Kew. But thanks to the unsmiling new regimes at such places, far from experiencing uplift or tranquillity, you will be subjected to hectoring, if not a full-scale humiliation, of your nation and its history.
Britain, you will invariably be told, is uniquely bad.
Take the National Gallery, which receives tens of millions of pounds a year in taxpayer funding, despite sitting on a cash pile of more than £200 million in 2018.
The Imperial War Museum was founded in 1917 in the midst of World War I ‘to collect and display material as a record of everyone’s experiences during that [conflict] — civilian and military — and to commemorate the sacrifices of all sections of society
Visit Britain’s richest gallery and you get a truly pathetic impression of Left-wing academics desperately trying to link any painting in the collection to something, anything, to do with slavery. The connections are often laughable.
Constable’s The Cornfield is a delightful image of old rural England. But beware, art lover. You are no longer allowed to enjoy this lovely work without being reminded it was presented to the Gallery in 1837 by patrons including poet William Wordsworth, who once lived in a house in Dorset, Racedown Lodge, that was owned by a former plantation holder.
Does that help you understand or appreciate the painting one whit more? Of course not.
But as one unusually wise academic voice, Professor Robert Tombs of St John’s College, Cambridge, has observed: ‘This is what our “history wars” are really about: not analysing and understanding the past, but using historical claims to support negative assertions about the present.’
The Imperial War Museum — also funded in large part by government grants — is, if anything, even worse. This great museum was founded in 1917 in the midst of World War I ‘to collect and display material as a record of everyone’s experiences during that [conflict] — civilian and military — and to commemorate the sacrifices of all sections of society.’
How far from this noble ambition it has strayed.
Not so long ago, visitors who arrived at it were blasted with the sound of hip-hop band Public Enemy’s song Fight The Power. It includes the lyrics: ‘Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant s*** to me you see / Straight up racist, that sucker was / Simple and plain.’
Brilliant. And so very helpful in understanding our nation’s military history.
Never missing an opportunity to denigrate Britain’s past, the museum this year staged a wildly offensive performance on Remembrance Sunday, with a rap song attacking Winston Churchill.
A member of the public spoke bluntly when he said: ‘I used to visit [the] Imperial War Museum a couple of times a year. But I’d rather support an institution that respects and upholds British values instead of s***ting all over them.’
Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, with its world-class collection of weapons, canoes and other anthropological treasures, recently held an exhibition called ‘Beyond the Binary’, partly paid for by a Heritage Lottery Grant of more than £90,000. (It is not publicly funded.)
Curators claimed the exhibition was ‘a positive step in tackling oppression, which LGBTIAQ+ communities often feel in spaces such as this one’.
Policy Exchange’s decision to question the woke at Kew does offer a gleam of hope. But this battle is set to continue
Writer Josephine Bartosch described how one ‘community curator’ — who worryingly holds a PhD from Oxford — added his soft toy to the exhibition. He informed visitors: ‘My cuddly gosling comes with me when I feel vulnerable, and keeps me safe from my own criticism. When I came to Oxford as a queer working-class person, I experienced a chasm of identity separating me from others.’
As for the National Trust, one of Britain’s best-loved charities, though again not taxpayer-funded, the horror stories of its attempts to outdo itself in political correctness never seem to stop. No wonder it is now sarcastically referred to as the National Distrust.
And it’s here that the tragedy lies: in the ever-deepening division between our cultural elite and the people they are supposed to serve — who often pay their salaries.
Policy Exchange’s decision to question the woke at Kew does offer a gleam of hope. But this battle is set to continue.
On university campuses, free speech is dead, while the list of lecturers and guest speakers who have been banned, censored, silenced — ‘de-platformed’ in the euphemism — grows ever-longer.
This reached preposterous levels in April this year, when Sheffield University proposed to ban Sir Isaac Newton. This was to ‘decolonise’ the engineering curriculum, as Newton may have benefited from ‘colonial-era activity’.
The attempted ban was later dropped — with some disappointment from the Left, one suspects.
Newton was of course one of the greatest scientists of all time. He is also famous for the humble observation that all his work had only been achieved by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, that is, thanks to the great thinkers of the past.
Today’s commissars of the cultural elite seem to me the exact opposite of Newton: pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants, scowling with ingratitude and plotting how to tear them down.