The death of historical truth - by Jonathan Sumption for UnHerd - 01.03.23
The New Roundheads can't see beyond race says Jonathan Sumption who is a former Justice of the Supreme Court, and a medieval historian.
A number of intolerant ideologies have swept through the worlds of learning, literature and the visual and performing arts over the past two decades. I am concerned with one of them. Its essential feature is the diversion of academic disciplines to a task for which they are usually ill-suited, namely the reform of modern society so as to redress perceived inequalities, notably of race.
In the course of this exercise, some of these disciplines have been discredited and others distorted, generally with little or no factual basis. The study of history is particularly vulnerable. Most historical scholarship involves judicious selection from a vast and usually incomplete body of material. It is possible to create an entirely false narrative without actually lying, by exaggeration and tendentious selection.
The major threat to historical integrity comes when the criteria of selection are derived from a modern ideological agenda. We have been witnessing the reshaping of the history of the past four centuries to serve as a weapon in current political disputes. Objectivity and truth have been the main casualties.
In November 2022, the Wellcome Collection, a museum dedicated to the history of medicine, announced the closure of Medicine Man, an exhibition of artefacts relating to the history of medicine collected by its founder Sir Henry Wellcome. The decision to close this exhibition was itself perfectly reasonable. As a collector, Sir Henry Wellcome was a bit of a magpie, and the exhibition, which was 15 years old, was rather fusty.
However, what mainly attracted attention was the statement which the curators published on Twitter that they had closed it because it “perpetuates a version of medical history that is based on racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”.
To understand this statement, it is necessary to go back two and a half years to an earlier announcement from the Wellcome Collection in June 2020 in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Under the heading “Anti-Blackness and Racism”, it declared that the Collection was built on “racist and patriarchal narratives” and that institutional racism was enmeshed within its fabric. It went on to suggest that not only the Wellcome Collection but museums generally were “built on a foundation of white supremacy” and had replicated “racist behaviours” for decades.
The curators declared their intention of “continually ask[ing] questions about power, representation and the civic role of public museums” and focussing on the “lived experiences of those who have been silenced, erased and ignored”.
What does all that mean? It is palpably untrue that medical history, as presented in Medicine Man, was based on racist, sexist and ableist theories. Certainly, museums reflect the historical outlook of those who assembled their collections and their successors who curated them. In Britain, they were generally able-bodied white males. But museums do not, just by virtue of that fact, replicate racist behaviours.
Nor does our culture silence or ignore non-European experience where it is relevant. I think that what the curators meant to say was that the exhibition treated medicine as a western science of which non-white groups were passive consumers with no worthwhile contribution of their own. This, they felt, implied a hierarchy of cultures in which the west was superior to the rest, a notion which was offensive to non-western racial groups.
The Wellcome Collection is not alone. The Museum Association, which represents museums generally, has called on them to “address colonial structures and approaches to all areas of museum work”. At about the same time as the curators of the Wellcome Collection published their June 2020 statement, the Director of the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, probably the world’s leading institution dedicated to plant science, issued a similar statement on its behalf.
He began with the usual cringing confession that its history “shamefully draws from a legacy that has deep roots in colonialism and racism”. The only fact cited to support this surprising assertion is that during the nineteenth century, the Royal Botanical Garden studied the movement of plants around the British Empire as part of its world-wide botanical mission.
This is said to have made the Botanical Garden at Kew a “beacon of privilege and exploitation”. The director went on to declare that Kew would in future decolonise its collections and “tackle structural racism in plant and fungal science”, with a view to achieving “transformative and societal change” in modern Britain. The inference is that merely by having existed and collected information and specimens in the great age of imperialism Kew Gardens is in some way complicit in modern inequalities in Britain.
Finally this. “There is no acceptable neutral position on this subject [racial injustice;]; to stay silent is to be complicit”. This is a particularly odd thing to say. It seems obvious that one can be an excellent plant scientist and an outstanding plant historian without taking any view at all on racial injustice.
This 12 page article ends with these words of warning:
These New Roundheads,with their destructive campaigns against historical objectivity, share a deadly combination of dogmatic intolerance and sanctimonious philistinism with the original Roundheads.
The earlier Roundheads ultimately failed in their attempt to produce a uniform culture in England according to their own narrow vision of virtue. A civilised society should wish the same fate upon their modern successors.
This is an edited version of the Pharos Lecture, which Jonathan Sumption delivered on February 27 in the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford
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