The British Museum has confirmed that it will not be removing any of its controversial objects from its display cabinets, after a warning letter from the government was issued, saying that government-funded establishments could lose taxpayer support if artefacts are removed.

In a statement to the BBC, the Museum said it was keen to contextualise items instead, explaining: “It will seek, where appropriate, to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety.”

The letter from culture secretary Oliver Dowden was also sent to the Tate galleries, the National Portrait Gallery, the Imperial War museums, the Science Museum, the V&A, the British Library, National Museums Liverpool and the Royal Armouries.

It was leaked to the Sunday Telegraph and read: “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.”

Over the last couple of years, the repatriation of cultural heritage has really come to the fore as an international conversation. In November last year, Manchester Museum returned 18 secret, sacred and ceremonial items to two Australian First Nations communities.

And the University of Cambridge also announced that the okukor – a Benin bronze cockerel – would be repatriated to the royal family in Benin City, Nigeria.