Good historical scholarship and learning face many challenges and threats at present. The most obvious emanate from ideological interpretations of the past and defective knowledge. Yet there are many other obstacles to the accurate and balanced presentation of history in the institutions and bureaucracies on which scholars and the public depend. History Reclaimed would like to hear from its readers about encounters they have had where History has been the loser. Such encounters might include a gallery force-feeding an interpretation to the public; a museum banishing controversial items to its store, or even thinking of repatriating them; or an organisation not allowing access to its collections. Anything, however seemingly trivial, that prevents the study and dissemination of good history and public understanding of the subject, will be of interest to this column, so please send in your reports and complaints using the interactive form on our ‘Contact’ page.
Let me begin with a recent experience of my own. I intend to take a group of my students to the ‘Slavery & the Bank’ exhibition at the Bank of England’s museum which runs until the end of April 2023. The Bank itself did not trade in slaves as an institution, but some of its earliest Directors certainly did on their own account, and in 2020 it ‘commenced a thorough review of its collection of images of former Governors and Directors to ensure none with any such involvement in the slave trade remain on display anywhere in the Bank’. The exhibition contains much more than this about its involvement in slavery, right up to the Bank’s role in the payment of compensation to slaveholders in the 1830s and 1840s after the Emancipation Act in 1833.
Looking through its website to find out about group bookings, I read the following: ‘Can I bring a state school or community group? Yes, we welcome state school and adult community groups. We can offer you a free group talk or presentation…’. Can that really mean that the Bank doesn’t welcome groups from independent schools, I wondered? (Declaration of interest at this point: I have been a governor of two private schools, one of which I attended myself long ago before it became independent). I sent off an email to find out. What came back was even more astonishing than the specific reference to ‘state’ schools: the museum was open to all but “it’s the presentations that are only available to state primary and secondary schools’”. You can look but you can’t touch, is about the size of it. We’ll let you in if you’re from a private school, but we’ll reserve the special educational experience for some other children.
Set aside any views you might hold about private education in general. This is not about the rights and wrongs of that. This is simply about discrimination, and a type of discrimination which makes it less easy for some children to learn than others. Why should children learning history be divided in this way? And who made the decision to treat children from one type of school differently from children from another? Would the Bank discriminate among people coming to its exhibition on grounds of colour, or race, or religion, or sexuality? I would hope not. Why then does one group of children get treated better than another?
The exhibition is designed to explain the Bank’s role in slavery and the slave trade. I commend their honesty. But how can the Bank mount such an exhibition while brazenly treating two groups of children differently? If it has a mission to explain, that mission must be for everyone, and for everyone’s children.
I have asked for an explanation and I’ll keep our readers updated.
The incident may be small but it’s a remarkable illustration of the double standards in so many of our institutions which focus on past wrongs while oblivious to their present vices and failings. Is this a case of virtue-signalling, therefore? Probably. At the very least a museum engaging with the subject of slavery in particular should be very clear that it is not itself perpetuating division and discrimination.
The Bank has been criticised severely in recent months for its abject failure in controlling inflation, its primary responsibility. Institutions that fail in small things tend to fail in big things as well. Many have called for the resignation of the Governor of the Bank. I call for the resignation of whoever devised this particular form of discrimination among children learning history.
One final thing. The Bank of England has taken down the portraits of those of its Directors who were involved with the slave trade. That is to hide from its history, a cowardly and altogether convenient method of covering up the truth. No one need ever know because the evidence has been removed. The morally correct course of action would have been to keep the portraits visible and explain who the subjects are using plaques, perhaps even with a permanent exhibition on the history of the Bank, including any links to slavery. It would have reminded the Governor and his staff that all economic decisions have moral consequences, and it would have made them better bankers.