Do we need a pro or an anti-Thatcher museum? What about both?
Museums exist for multiple reasons. They conserve artefacts; they display items of public significance; they educate and inspire. And whether their focus is on history, culture or science, they always carry an implication of fact. The presumption is that, within their walls, they carry the great truths of our world. Which makes it a little tricky if your plan is to build a museum about one of Britain’s most opinion-splitting leaders. It returns us to that thorny question: how should history handle the legacy of Margaret Thatcher?
Since 2013, an official museum named The Margaret Thatcher Centre has been in the works. It aims to ‘highlight and explain the philosophy and values that Thatcher believed in deeply’, and has been helped along by a £15m government grant. Soon after its announcement, however, artist Darren Cullen proposed an alternative museum - an ‘anti-Thatcher’ museum, if you will - dedicated to ‘reclaiming her legacy away from sycophants, to look at her actual record’.
Just to get my own bias out in the open, I’ll confess now that I’m anything but a Thatcherite. I’m deeply opposed to her core beliefs of deregulation, privatisation and limited government, and believe that her divisive social and economic policies are among the most damaging things to have happened to Britain in the past century. I’m aware, though, that mine is one in a sea of opinions; ask any given person about Thatcher and the last reaction you’re likely to see is ambivalence.
a museum filled with testaments to Thatcher’s resolve with only one or two throwaway, courtesy lines about how her policies were ‘sometimes controversial’ makes me uneasy
On the face of it, building a museum against somebody might seem petty or cruel. However, with somebody like Thatcher it’s surely more vital than ever to present a wide-ranging account, and that’s one thing the official Thatcher Centre seemingly has little interest in. Spearheaded by Conor Burns MP and endorsed by the likes of Boris Johnson, Rupert Murdoch and the Cherish Freedom Trust, it’s undeniably tilted in the Iron Lady’s favour, promising to focus on her ‘principles’ and ‘courage’ with ‘particular emphasis’ on the Falklands.
The idea of a museum filled with testaments to Thatcher’s resolve with only one or two throwaway, courtesy lines about how her policies were ‘sometimes controversial’ makes me uneasy. Will her success in the Falklands be contrasted with her support for Pinochet? Will the context of the Miners’ Strike be dissected, or brushed off as the whinging of stubborn schmucks stuck on the wrong side of history, unable to grasp Thatcher’s revolutionary thinking? Will there be a proper exhibit about the Poll Tax riots, or just a few brief photos - ‘Whoops, she might have gone a bit far but still, wasn’t she amazing?!’
If people admire Thatcher then why not pay tribute to her, you might argue. However, when this tribute is publicly funded it has an unavoidable duty to be more rounded. This is even more necessary given that one of the centre’s purported aims is ‘to educate future generations’. While Thatcher’s devotees might accept neoliberal theories as gospel, they’re far from the only way of governing a country, and teaching them as fact without acknowledging their downsides or alternatives would be little short of propaganda. Lord Tebbit’s endorsement, in which he describes his hopes of the centre ‘carrying forward Thatcher’s unfinished work’, makes the whole thing feel downright ominous.
Of course, it would be equally dangerous to stray in the opposite direction: a museum filled with conspiracy theories and ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ playing over funeral footage would hardly be educational. However, if it utilises contemporary sources to shine a light on areas where the official centre fears to tread, the ‘anti’ museum might actually be more balanced. What’s more, its approach would ensure that the legitimate grievances of millions aren’t swept under the rug. With so many people still living lives shaped (negatively, in my opinion) by the aftermath of Thatcherism, this is the least the public deserve.
multiple versions of history still exist. If our museums choose to embrace this, it can only be a good thing
Explaining the importance of his project, Darren Cullen stated: ‘I can’t help but feel anxious as I imagine a museum filled with testaments to Thatcher’s tenacity ’. Just as historians remain conflicted about Richard III and Marie Antoinette, there is unlikely to ever be a widely-accepted consensus on Margaret Thatcher. Therefore, for any museum to just place her on a pedestal or drag her through the mud would be blinkered, as well as unprofessional.
Both museums are at a foundling stage, but when/if they develop they could form a fascinating double-act, demonstrating the complexity with which we view our public figures. Technology might make us better equipped to document our world than in centuries past, but it is clear that multiple versions of history still exist. If our museums choose to embrace this, it can only be a good thing.
In fact, dual museums might just be perfect in this instance. Perhaps the official centre ought to go flat-out in its quest to provide the full Thatcher experience - they could privatise it, have it guarded by G4S and staff it with non-unionised agency workers. Then the government would open the state-run ‘anti’ museum across the road to ensure competitiveness. Really, I can’t think of a more fitting testament to Margaret Thatcher than that.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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