TAITMAIL An Act of culture war?

Michael Heseltine was no longer environment secretary when the National Heritage Act came into effect in 1983, but he was its godfather, patron of perhaps the most significant cultural change before the National Lottery a decade later.

Before the Act our heritage was imprisoned inside glass boxes or behind ropes, something to be revered from a distance and to be protected from sticky fingers. Our national museums were run by the civil service mostly as part of the Department for Education and Science which approved their budgets. There were no blockbuster exhibitions of the kind we have become familiar with; anything earned by a temporary show, shops or refreshment reverted back to the department which approved, or not, exhibition proposals. Exhibitions largely had to be created from museums’ own collections, an exercise in ingenuity for curators, and there was virtually no commercial promotion with communications operations mostly defensive, not pro-active. 

The government’s motive in bringing in this revolutionary Act was financial. The prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in serious pre-election cost-cutting mode, and these institutions were enormously expensive to run through the civil service bureaucracy. 

But what it also did was to begin the process of liberating our culture and heritage, taking museums and galleries out of the grip of ministries and setting them up as non-departmental public bodies with their own boards of trustees which would set budgets, make programming decisions and appoint senior staff. Their mission would be to promote the “public’s enjoyment and understanding of art, craft and design”, something the government of the 1980s had previously failed to evince much interest in. The only small cloud on this new horizon was that the chairs of trustees had to be approved by No 10.

What the Act also did was create something called the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, another non-governmental public body, whose job was to manage the historic built environment. It would take on listing responsibilities from local authorities and promote and care for the historic properties in the national possession. Heseltine thought the title was cumbersome and bureaucratic, and changed it to English Heritage.

But the task grew to be too much for a single organisation, and in 2015 it was split into two with English Heritage given the management of more than 400 buildings, monuments and sites and the new Historic England (HE) handling listing, research, planning and grants.

This week HE threw a party on the roof of its London HQ to mark the Act’s 40th anniversary, but also to say farewell to its founding chairman, the financier and baronet Laurie Magnus who also happens to be Rishi Sunak’s ethics adviser.

In the last four decades the heritage has become vital to the British economy. As of 2019, the last year on record, the sector contributed £36.6bn to the Treasury in gross value added (GVA), or 1.1% of the gross domestic product (GDP), and employs over half a million people. And according to the research consultants Oxford Economics the multiplier effect is working like a rash. For every £100 of GVA heritage tourism creates it supports another £130 elsewhere in the economy, and for every 100 people it employs it sustains another 102 outside.

Reptrak, the independent benchmark of the reputation of public bodies, recently declared that HE’s standing had risen to fourth, with only the NHS blood and transplant service, the Navy and the RAF ahead of it. There are now 400,000 listed buildings in England and 10,000 conservation areas, and nearly 5,000 buildings on the Heritage at Risk Register; HE is coming to the end of its four year £95m mission to revive our high streets; and it’s devised the very handy Heritage Protection Guide with advice on the responsibilities and benefits of having a historic building.

Laurie Magnus is convinced about the work they’re doing – “Heritage matters” he said at Wednesday’s event. “It changes lives”. But politics looms in a way it didn’t when Magnus was appointed by David Cameron, over the issues of “contested heritage”.  Activities by groups like Black Lives Matter who pitched the statue of a slaver trader into the Bristol Harbour, and Me Too not to mention Just Stop Oil deeply offended Oliver Dowden when he was culture secretary.

In 2020 he wrote to national museums as well as HE and EH warning that their government grants might come into question if they removed statues of individuals history was showing to have been guilty of racism, misogyny and other egregious social crimes, which got a stinging response from a previous Tory culture minister, Ed Vaizey: “It’s one thing to have a bit of fun to feed the tabloids, quite another to start issuing directions to arm’s length bodies” he said to the Art Newspaper. “It is a serious breach of the arm’s length principle, an attack on their independence and scholarship, and hugely damaging to morale at a time when the sector is already on its knees. It will have damaging long-term consequences if what were once curatorial decisions are taken over by ministers”.

As it was, the government blocked the reappointment of a National Maritime Museum trustee because of his academic interest in British colonialism, leading to the resignation of the museum’s chairman, and an attempt to prevent the appointment of Professor Mary Beard to the board of the British Museum, which the BM (chair, George Osborne, who was at school with the now Lord Vaizey) resisted.

In his tribute to Magnus HE’s CEO Duncan Wilson said that of the four Old Etonians he had worked under, “Laurie is easily the best”. Magnus certainly seems to have been popular with the HE staff, and he leaves with one wish unfulfilled – he has been campaigning for the name of DCMS to be changed to the “Department of Culture, Heritage, Media and Sport”.

But despite being committed, like the Arts Council, to those dangerous principles of inclusion and diversity, Wilson and Magnus seem to have kept HE out of Mr Dowden’s culture wars. So far. Magnus leaves without a successor being named. And Oliver Dowden is no longer culture secretary. He’s the deputy prime minister.



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