The “refreshment room” of Tate Britain once had all the relaxed charm of a dungeon. Diners were squeezed between imposing iron pillars. Water pipes criss-crossed the walls. Arched windows completed the prison aesthetic. It was, a journalist at the time wrote, a “forbidding cellarage”.

Then, in 1926, the gallery hired a 20-year-old artist called Rex Whistler, paying him £5 a week to transform the room with a mural. “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats” follows seven travellers from the fantastical town of Epicurania on a quixotic journey, hunting unicorns and exotic prey across lush valleys, waterfalls and proud neoclassical monuments.

Not only did the whimsical fresco save the restaurant, it became its main attraction — the Tate billed it as “the most amusing room in Europe”. It was renamed after Rex Whistler, the son of a village builder, in 1953. Large sums were spent on renovating it in 2012. And today, once again, Whistler’s masterpiece will seal the restaurant’s fate, according to gallery insiders. Thanks to what he painted on those walls, it will almost certainly be shut, never to reopen.

After layers of grime were removed during the revamp in 2012, the problem was unmistakable. Not only were racist, Orientalist caricatures visible, but depictions of a black boy, half-naked and enslaved, being dragged along by a jaunty princess. In one image, he is chained by the neck to a red chariot.

The controversial Rex Whistler mural at Tate Britain’s restaurant

Restaurant staff and a visitor first raised concerns some seven years ago. Well-meaning committees were convened. Explanatory leaflets were adjusted. But the occasional complaint kept coming, along with social media fire. More desperate options were drawn up, including obscuring the offensive images “with furniture or hanging pictures”.

Once the Black Lives Matter movement took off, the Tate’s explanatory panel looked even more inadequate. “I just don’t think you can dine there thinking everything is fine,” says one Tate trustee, confirming it will be closed. What remains uncertain is where the restaurant will move to and what happens to the large room left behind. A consultation on this is being planned.

Part exquisite artwork, immovable monument and racist mural, there are no easy answers to the Whistler. But the sense of unease rippling through Britain’s museums and galleries is not just over the dilemmas posed by such relics of an imperial era, offensive paintings, plundered treasures or statues of fallen heroes. It is a broader one, touching on a 268-year-old precedent — set by the foundation of the British Museum — for how to manage national collections that were amassed through empire and held by trustees for the “public benefit”. An astonishing 100m objects are held in the UK’s 15 taxpayer-funded national museums. Who should decide what to do with the contested heritage within this trove?

A bust of Nelson Mandela under wraps on London’s Southbank, June 2020, and a boarded-up statue of Mahatma Gandhi in London’s Parliament Square, June 2020. Both were covered up for fear of right-wing attacks in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests

For intertwined with Britain’s reckoning with its colonial past — and the so-called “war on woke” waged by Boris Johnson’s government in response — is a more fundamental battle for control, playing out behind the scenes of independent institutions such as the Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Museums Greenwich and the Science Museum. Trustees are volunteers, typically drawn from the ranks of business, the arts and academia, serving on boards largely appointed by the government but given operational independence. It is supposed to be a tranquil business. But recently trustees have been denied second terms by Downing Street, thrown aside for critical comments on social media or for refusing what one described as “an oath of allegiance” to ministers.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has cast it as simple guidance to “retain and explain” contested statues and objects, “however challenging this may be”. More controversially, the policy was made a test for new board appointments. A phrase arguably vague enough to be meaningless — there are 8m objects retained in the British Museum’s collection and just 1 per cent is displayed — is now seen by some trustees as a menacing tool to exercise state power over the arts.

Sir Charles Dunstone, a self-made billionaire who chaired the Royal Museums Greenwich, resigned in protest at ministers refusing to reappoint a trustee. Other boards have faced similar dilemmas. More than a dozen trustees in total have told the Financial Times of their deep disquiet. But Johnson’s team are pressing on methodically, with the swagger that comes with a thumping election majority, to bring to heel the so-called “arm’s length bodies” that oversee Britain’s great national collections and even charities such as the National Trust.

Whether led by “take-it-down” activists or conservative enemies of a “new Puritanism”, Britain’s culture war seems ever more shrill. Meanwhile, academics who have attempted to “explain” the past have found themselves pilloried in the rightwing press. “What is really coming under attack is the idea that experts can serve the public,” says Sarah Dry, a historian of science who quit the board of the Science Museum after being asked to explicitly endorse government policy. “It’s the language about experts as elites who are the enemy of the people, rather than people with specialist knowledge of a particular subject. The public suffers because the quality of museum work suffers, when the space for independent expertise gets squeezed.”

Workers cover up, and later uncover, a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square in June 2020

Cultural boards have long been a home for patronage. From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, governments have set the tone of policy for museums and galleries, filling their upper ranks with allies and their coffers with public funds. Nicholas Coleridge, the former media executive who chairs the board of the Victoria and Albert Museum, says he is “unashamedly grateful” for the £2bn pandemic rescue package for the arts and comfortable with ministers setting broad policy on contentious objects. “National museums have always had an obligation to retain their collections and take care of them, that’s a cornerstone of the job,” he says. “As for ‘explain’, who could reasonably object to that?”

But this government’s more interventionist approach stands out from past practice as being more overt, policy-driven and aggressive in its aims and it has alienated some who believe in the need to confront the past, but are against removing statues. “We are all the children of colonial history, either perpetrators or victims. It is shameful, that history, but it happened,” says Sir Antony Gormley, the acclaimed British sculptor and a former board member of the British Museum. “We are not going to solve it by hiding evidence of its inequities or its attitudes.” Gormley recently suggested that a statue of Cecil Rhodes that has long been at the centre of controversy at Oriel College, Oxford, should be turned to face the wall; the college’s decision to keep the colonialist in situ led some 150 Oxford dons to announce this week that they would refuse to teach there.

But Gormley bristles at the impression he has of a government sliding towards “a Maoist notion that art is expected to illustrate state policy”. “Art spent a century liberating itself from the duties of serving power, either political or financial,” he says. “If now the government — for whatever its reasons — is trying to somehow restrict or corral, this is a really serious sickness. It is none of their business.”

It was the second interview to join the board of trustees at the Royal Armouries that really surprised Catherine Fletcher. As a professor of Renaissance history at Manchester Metropolitan University who had worked as an adviser on the televised version of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, she was well prepared to establish her credentials as a serious academic with a record of popularising history.

After a first interview for the unpaid post in December 2020, which lightly touched on contested heritage, Fletcher received a note from a Department of Culture official. Would she mind having a “quick hangout” to follow up? It was then, in a call the following day, that her views were more directly interrogated. “It was quite explicit in the interview that the government was keen to ensure that new trustees supported their views on statues in particular,” she recalls.

The boarded-up statue of Thomas Picton at Cardiff City Hall, July 2020; workers clean the Robert the Bruce statue in Bannockburn, Scotland, after it was defaced with graffiti, June 2020

Fletcher says she found the line of questioning troubling. She describes herself as an “ordinary” member of the Labour party who, after a prominent spell in student politics, is no longer particularly active. “I had expected to get questions about the ethics of dealing with the collection. What I didn’t expect was to effectively be asked ‘do your broader views on heritage align with government policy?’,” she says.

A closer examination of the government’s nine-page document calling for applications for the Royal Armouries’ board shows that Fletcher should not perhaps have been surprised. Listed among the required “specific skills and expertise” is “a commitment to preserving cultural heritage in place”. The rubric also warned applicants there would be “searches of previous public statements and social media” and these could be “shared with ministers”. One distinguished figure in the arts described the vetting as “frankly pretty shocking”.

Only under questioning did Fletcher recall a facetious tweet she had sent as debate raged over the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, which was tipped into Bristol Harbour last year. “If the defend-statues brigade are really that keen to see Colston, let them organise a glass-bottomed boat trip,” Fletcher wrote, a flippant post she suspects lay behind her second grilling.

People in London gather at the boxed-in statue of Winston Churchill to ‘protect it from further vandalism’, June 2020

In the end, Steven Gunn, a professor of history at Oxford’s Merton College, was appointed, a choice Fletcher accepts is perfectly appropriate. But she questions the wider impact of vetting trustees so that they align with government views. “You risk ending up with a less diverse pool,” she says. “Everyone on that board [of 11] is white and 10 of them are men.”

The Culture Department said that it wanted publicly funded bodies to “reflect the full diversity of the taxpayers they serve”, noting that the government’s official guidance on appointing non-executives, such as museum trustees, was clear that such appointments should “deliver the outcomes expected” by both ministers and the government department sponsoring that institution.

Dowden, for his part, has set his stall out for diversity, but with a twist. More than a quarter of his department’s appointments have been from ethnic minorities. But he sees an additional imbalance to address: the dominance of a liberal, metropolitan bubble. Almost half of the roughly 190 or so trustees at institutions funded by his culture department live in London. “I want a grandparent in Hartlepool or Harwich to feel as represented by their decisions as a millennial in Islington,” Dowden wrote in May in the Sunday Telegraph.

Museum of the Home director Sonia Solicari

Remain-voting Dowden is an unlikely candidate to carry the flag for the Johnson government’s battle with so-called “wokery”. But having worked through the Conservative party’s political machine — from Tory central office to David Cameron’s Downing Street — he has brought a sharp-edged political message to the fight, often to the alarm of liberals.

His own views have hardened too. This partly reflects a more pugnacious mood in Downing Street and in the Tory party, typified by MPs in the so-called Common Sense Group, which casts itself as a bulwark against “woke ideology”. But it has also been a more practical matter, as the dilemmas of the push to topple statues and rename streets hit his desk last year.

Dowden cites the particular example of the Museum of the Home, which wrestled with whether to remove a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, the museum’s 17th-century benefactor who profited from the slave trade. The statue stands high up in an alcove above the alms houses in Hackney, north-east London, which Geffrye built and where the museum has its home.

Cultural divide over a colonial past. Chart showing opinion on what should happen to UK statues of those involved in the slave trade (%)

More than 70 per cent of respondents to a public consultation backed removing the statue, but the exercise was not designed as a vote. Dowden recently told MPs that Samir Shah, a television executive who chairs the museum’s board, approached him about the “undue pressure” to topple Geffrye from a “politicised campaign” that included threats of a boycott. Shah’s plea, according to Dowden, was for “clarification” of the government’s view. Dowden gave it.

As the museum’s main financial sponsor, Dowden’s intervention essentially made the decision for the board: the statue would remain. But it divided the museum and laid down an edict that marked a bigger shift of power across the sector. Sonia Solicari, the museum’s director, acknowledged feeling “extremely compromised by that situation” in evidence to parliament last year. “The museum should ideally be free to act with integrity,” she explained.

The Museum of the Home has also embraced Dowden’s diversity agenda. One striking museum appointment to the board was that of Mercy Muroki, a young think-tanker, academic and rising media star whose debut column in The Sun declared: “I just don’t subscribe to woke, academic culture”. Muroki and Shah sat together on the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which released a report earlier this year that said systemic or institutional racism was not a fact of British life — a finding that caused significant controversy.

A salvage team in Bristol harbour retrieves the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in June 2020; inset, the Bristol music venue is renamed ‘Bristol Beacon’ from ‘Colston Hall’

Muroki, who has also been appointed as a presenter on Andrew Neil’s new right-leaning network GB News, says she believes her appointment reflected the museum’s determination to rebrand and broaden its appeal beyond exhibits on Victorian furnishings. “There are plenty of academics working in the museum,” she says.

Born in Kenya, Muroki moved to the UK aged five and is completing a masters in comparative social policy at Oxford university. She says it is back-to-front to depict the Johnson government as running a culture war from the right. Instead, she claims, it is the left that has become expert in “piling on” and forcing the public to conform to ideas they don’t really subscribe to, out of fear of being labelled racist or homophobic. “It is possible that ‘retain and explain’ might entail the relocation of an object,” she says. “But what I’m worried about is this mob rule. I don’t want roads renamed or statues brought down because they offend a small number of people. I’m naturally a ‘small c’ conservative and believe it is best to take things gradually and bring people along.”

Muroki adds that she is also comfortable with elected government ministers having the final say over whether statues should be removed from listed buildings by local councils, as has been suggested by the housing minister Robert Jenrick.

Her views on statues are long-held. As a student at Queen Mary University of London in 2016, she opposed a successful campaign to remove a foundation stone from the university’s library that was laid by King Leopold II, the Belgian king who presided over one of western colonialism’s most brutal regimes in the Congo. “British people don’t subscribe to these ultra-woke ideas, but keep quiet even though they don’t feel comfortable subscribing to these views. The pile-ons work both ways,” she says.

Sir Charles Dunstone, who resigned as chair of Royal Museums Greenwich in protest at ministers refusing to reappoint a trustee

Some big private donors are queasy too, while not subscribing to Muroki’s call for a bigger government role. Pierre Lagrange, a founding member of GLG, one of the oldest hedge funds in London, told the FT of his unease at a decision by the Tate to postpone a major exhibition of Philip Guston’s work, which includes cartoonish depictions of Ku Klux Klan members in banal settings.

In a joint statement with other US galleries released last September, the Tate argued that it was better to wait for a time when Guston’s “powerful message” of anti-racism could be “more clearly interpreted”. Lagrange, a Tate donor, sees this as a “terrible mistake”. “Guston is on the record, very explicitly, about what these paintings mean. It is portraying the normalcy of monsters next door,” says Lagrange on a video call. “I understand some people could be offended. What I don’t understand is how we can back off from telling people: you guys are wrong. This is what he means.”

The government’s commitment to preserving cultural heritage in situ is neatly encapsulated in the phrase “retain and explain”, but it has always begged the question: explain what? For academics caught in the crossfire of the new culture war, the experience can be miserable, even frightening, as newspaper headlines whip up public sentiment against historians challenging long-held narratives about British history and the conduct of its empire.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden visits Tate Modern on its reopening, May 2021

One of those in the crosshairs is Corinne Fowler, a professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester, whose report for the National Trust detailing the links between historic slavery and colonialism in 93 different properties was furiously attacked by Conservative MPs and rightwing media outlets such as the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.

The National Trust said the report, published in September 2020, was designed to “help contextualise the history of the places in our care” and help the public to “question our assumptions about the past”. But critics labelled it an example of how the Black Lives Matter movement was destroying British heritage. “How YOUR money funded National Trust’s Woke review,” was the MailOnline’s headline. It reported that MPs were now demanding Dowden explain how the project had received National Lottery and Arts Council grants totalling £160,000 and that future funding should be denied.

For Fowler, the newspaper articles felt like a full-blown “smear campaign”, attacking both her and her team of historians as being politically biased and unpatriotic. “Government ministers briefed against the report to newspapers, calling it ‘unfortunate’ and far less flattering things,” she recalls.

Peter Mandler, president of the Historical Association, the UK’s national charity to promote history, says the government’s approach had the effect of quietly intimidating museum chiefs. “You talk to pretty much anyone who is a trustee of a heritage body or gallery and they’ll tell you there is a dark pall cast over their internal functioning because the government’s views are couched so broadly and leaked in such highly coloured ways, no one really knows what might be disapproved of, so there’s a general chill.”

The press reports spawned large amounts of hate mail. A Daily Mail article in which Fowler was described as the “academic signed up by the National Trust to lecture us on the evils behind our most glorious estates”, drew, she says, a particularly foul response. “There were threats to my digital and personal security,” says Fowler, who adds she now has four police crime reports to her name. “People make physical threats — about and to me — whenever these kind of pieces come out.”

It is not just the National Trust that has decided an audit of its contested heritage — defined by Historic England as objects or places that can be seen as “symbols of injustice and a source of great pain for many people” — is a practical necessity. The Church of England has begun reappraising its estate, removing dedications to Colston from the stained glass windows of Bristol Cathedral, which the church said had “prevented many people from finding peace in these beautiful buildings”.

A statue of Jan Christian Smuts, the South African prime minister, is cleaned by a maintenance team in Parliament Square in August 2020

Regional governments in Wales and Scotland have also removed objects, with little outcry. To many London-based trustees and academics the furore over contested heritage has a peculiarly English nationalist flavour to it. The current culture war mirrors the broader political divisions between England, with its pro-Brexit Conservative government under Boris Johnson, the pro-independence Scottish National party government and the Welsh administration, which is led by the opposition Labour party. “It is really interesting that this is really an English phenomenon, not a UK phenomenon — it is very different in Scotland and Wales,” said one trustee.

The Welsh government has, for example, announced that colonialism and black history will be mandatory parts of the new school curriculum, set to be introduced in 2022. Following the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol last summer, Cardiff City Hall said it would remove a statue of Thomas Picton, the governor of Trinidad who authorised the torture of a 13-year-old girl — trussing the child up while suspending her from the ceiling with one arm, leaving her to support her weight on a narrow wooden peg, a form of crucifixion known as “picketing”. The case caused such outrage that Picton was convicted for the crime at the King’s Bench in 1806, although he was never sentenced. It is a reminder that moral questions raised by colonialism and slavery did not go uncontested at the time.

Notwithstanding the hue and cry of the past 18 months, the academic community remains confident that an enduring shift is now taking place in attitudes towards colonial history and Britain’s role in the slave trade. This belief is founded not so much on political convictions, but grounded in a rapidly growing new body of historical research that during the past 20 years has underpinned the move to reappraise the legacies of colonialism and the slave trade.

Perhaps the best example is the massive database of British slave ownership that was created by analysing the records of compensation paid to slave owners following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which set free 800,000 Africans who were legally owned by Britons. Starting in 2009, the records held at the National Archives in Kew were mined by Dr Nick Draper, a former JPMorgan banker turned academic, to create an archive that details that the British government paid £20m, about £17bn in today’s money, to compensate around 46,000 British slave owners. It is the centrepiece of The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London and has helped to underpin a vast amount of other research such as Fowler’s project for the National Trust.

To Tories such as Sir John Hayes, leader of the so-called Common Sense Group, it has fed “an almost obsessive interest in slavery”. While acknowledging its evils, he argues “the idea of sanitising history is stupid, very stupid”. “It is an incredibly facile attempt to make this generation feel they are more noble than they are,” he says, speaking from his constituency in Lincolnshire. While delighted by Dowden’s approach, he would gladly see more funding stopped and an even tougher government approach to museums.

It may be too late. The ripple effect of making this vast repository of searchable data on slave ownership available to historians has taken time to seep out into the wider public consciousness. But for academics such as Margot Finn, a colonial historian at UCL and the former president of the Royal Historical Society, this new knowledge cannot now be unlearned despite the best efforts of the government to manage the presentation of Britain’s historical record.

“They can’t stop the research that has been done, that these people object to, or stop people from asking the questions they’re asking,” she says. “And in the past 20 years, we have seen such an extraordinary enrichment of what we know about the past — and the ability for that information to be interrogated by curators and other historians in the Caribbean, West Africa and across nations — that genie is simply not going to go back into the bottle.”

Alex Barker is the FT’s global media editor. Peter Foster is the FT’s public policy editor

Data visualisation by Keith Fray

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