‘Retain and explain’ guidance – DCMS

On 5 October 2023, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced new guidance to advise custodians facing calls for the removal of heritage assets in their care or ownership. This guidance is for use by all custodians of commemorative heritage assets needing advice on how to deal with calls to relocate or remove them from public display. This is not for use in the Church of England, which has issued its own guidance Contested Heritage in Cathedrals and Churches, although the “retain and explain” approach has been applied in a number of cases.

Historic England was an early adopter of the term in relation to Listed Building Decisions, and on 18 January 2021 the Government stated that the “retain and explain” policy “now forms part of national planning policy and should be applied accordingly”. A Press Release stated that “Historic England and the Secretary of State will apply the new policy of ‘retain and explain’, meaning historic statues will only be removed in the most exceptional circumstances.

The new guidance, which is only applicable to England, is in four parts:

  • Part 1 is a glossary of terms and description of roles and responsibilities for those involved in considering contested commemorative heritage assets.
  • Part 2 is the main guidance section which includes a process map, and detailed guidance on how to implement each stage.
  • Annex A outlines a summary of legislation, existing policies and guidance in England associated with commemorative heritage assets that have become contested.

It follows consideration by the academics and heritage experts of the government-appointed Heritage Advisory Board on how custodians should approach and manage requests for the removal of heritage assets in their care or ownership. It states inter alia:

  • the ‘Retain and explain’ policy will see assets kept in place, accompanied by an explanation of their historical context; and
  • applies to custodians of all public memorials, including statues, monuments and commemorations;
  • “The guidance applies to any statue or monument accessible to the public in the local community which faces calls for its removal or relocation on the grounds of changing views about the people or events it commemorates”.

This guidance applies to any commemorative heritage asset (statue, monument, or commemoration) which is a structure, or is part of a building or structure, which is on public display or in places accessible to the public. The guidance does not include:

  • museums’ and galleries’ collections, including objects on temporary or permanent display, or in storage.
  • items that do not form part of a building or structure, items that may be in place on a temporary basis, or items that are part of an exhibition. This may include items owned by institutions that are subject to restitution claims. Guidance on restitution is published by Arts Council England.
  • intangible forms of heritage such as dialects and dance.
  • heritage assets outside England, as heritage is a devolved matter – although custodians of heritage assets around the UK may like to consult this guidance.

Also published on 5 September by Historic England was a set of case studies highlighting the variety of ways that ‘reinterpretation’ has already been put in practice for various contested heritage assets in the UK and elsewhere. The ten reinterpretation case studies included three from the Church of England:

In addition to the Church of England guidance in this area, supra, there are links to:

“Retain and explain” in the Church of England

As noted in the DCMS guidance, the Church of England has published its own guidance:

and an Options Matrix to assist decision makers – a SWAT analysis[*] of the various possibilities:

  • No change vs no action
  • Interpretation/explanation
  • Addition
  • Non-permanent alteration
  • Relocation, within the building, to storage, elsewhere
  • On loan
  • Deaccessioning and disposal
  • Permanent alteration
  • Destruction

The guidance notes:

“Objects are sources of information not just about individuals but about the values of the society that created them. A memorial may represent the people who subscribed to have it erected and the work of the artists who made it—there is a growing body of research into the craftspeople who built and furnished our churches and cathedrals. Such narratives may be completely separate from a perceived pro-slavery narrative provided by the memorial, and should not be erased through destruction of the objects.

Whilst we do not believe that attitudes to discrimination should ever return to those prevalent in the past, the moral evaluation of the good and the evil done by individuals can also change. The presumption should therefore be that contested objects will continue to exist, even if reinterpreted or relocated, to retain their heritage value apart from their current context. Provision for the long-term future of any object should thus be part and parcel of any proposal for its relocation”.

A different view is taken in the Third Biannual Report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Racial Justice, which states:

“The Commission notes the number of historical and heritage bodies which approach Contested Heritage by holding to concerns of architectural and archaeological significance of objects and espouse the default ‘retain and explain’ approach.  The Commission recommends the shift from this prevailing viewpoint towards recognising the unwelcoming reality of these memorials and lack of solace available to worshippers of specific heritages in buildings adorned with these contested artifacts.  Churches and cathedrals should be safe spaces open to all and owned by everyone”.

[*] Strengths; Weaknesses; Opportunities; Threats.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "‘Retain and explain’ guidance – DCMS" in Law & Religion UK, 13 October 2023, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2023/10/13/retain-and-explain-guidance-dcms/

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