Government-funded museums and galleries that remove statues or other artefacts as a result of pressure from campaigners risk jeopardising their taxpayer support, the Culture Secretary has warned.
In a letter leaked to The Telegraph, Oliver Dowden told organisations including the British Museum, Tate galleries, and Imperial War museums that the Government "does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects", and that he expected publicly funded venues to follow suit.
Mr Dowden said it was "imperative" that publicly funded bodies "act impartially", particularly as the Chancellor embarks on a "challenging" review of all Whitehall spending.
The letter was sent to the heads of museums and galleries classified as "arms length" bodies, because they receive central government funding but are not Whitehall agencies.
It amounts to the Government's most significant intervention yet in recent cultural clashes that has led to institutions including museums and universities facing pressure to remove statues, plaques and other objects linked to the country's colonial past.
Last week, Bristol's Colston Hall was renamed Bristol Beacon over its association with the slave trade.
Mr Dowden's letter was sent to publicly owned museums and galleries, including the Museum of the Home in east London, which has come under pressure to remove a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, the merchant and slave trader, following the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer.
In the letter, sent on Tuesday, Mr Dowden said: "History is ridden with moral complexity. Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong. Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today.
"But though we may now disagree with those who created them or who they represent, they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults."
He added: "The Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects. Historic England, as the Government’s adviser on the historic environment, have said that removing difficult and contentious parts of it risks harming our understanding of our collective past. Rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be."
Recipients of the letter included the National Portrait Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, the Royal Armouries, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Library.
The minister continued: "As set out in your management agreements, I would expect Arm’s Length Bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the Government’s position. Further, as publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics. The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country. It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question.
"This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised."
In June, Boris Johnson insisted that "we cannot now try to edit or censor our past" after a statue of Edward Colston, another merchant involved in the slave trade, was toppled in Bristol.
The Prime Minister said: “We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong.
"But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”
Last week, MPs said the National Trust should be concentrating on "preserving and protecting" heritage and not making Sir Winston Churchill the subject of controversy, after the wartime leader was criticised in the charity's review of slavery and colonialism.