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We’re on the brink of Brexit – so isn’t it time the UK formed stronger cultural ties around the globe?

12 November 2019

I recently visited the new West Bund Museum in Shanghai, an outpost for the collection of the Centre Pompidou, the week before its opening by President Macron. In talking to people there, I was struck by how little joined-up thinking there is about the international opportunities of developing, and showing, the UK’s national collections, not just in China, but in other parts of Asia as well.

Of course, in September 2005, Neil MacGregor and Mark Jones, then directors of the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, were part of a cultural delegation with Tony Blair that led to a Memorandum of Understanding with the then premier of China, Wen Jiabao. The V&A has a successful partnership with China Merchants Shekou Holding, which has led to the creation of Design Society, a cultural hub in Shenzhen. And Philip Dodd, the former director of the ICA, has been active in organising exhibitions by contemporary British artists including Sean Scully and, most recently, Maggi Hambling. An Anish Kapoor exhibition recently opened in CAFA Art Museum and by Sarah Lucas at the Red Brick Art Museum, both in Beijing. But much of this activity has been the result of private initiatives by dedicated individuals, who became aware of the opportunities of opening up international relationships with China, rather than as part of a drive that has been fully supported and coordinated by the Foreign Office, the British Council or the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

I can imagine my former colleagues in the national museums saying that the last thing they want is any, or more, central government interference and that what is precious about the British system of national museums is precisely their independence, not subject to French-style centralised control. It could be argued that more has been achieved by the actions of vigorous internationalists such as Neil MacGregor and the late Martin Roth as roving cultural ambassadors without being constrained by or answerable to official policy.

But the sad truth is that if, whatever the result of the forthcoming election, the government takes Britain out of the European Union, then as a country we are going to be on our own in developing international trade relationships; and the international standing of Britain, which has taken such a battering in the last three years, is going to be dependent on how we are perceived as a potential partner internationally – which will be influenced, if not determined, by how British culture is regarded overseas.

Under these circumstances, it is surely desirable for the British government to be more coordinated, and more creative, in how it manages and supports international partnerships and international exhibitions organised by the national museums.

My experience of the current generation of British ambassadors, however, is that they view their responsibilities as being primarily in terms of trading relationships. How much emphasis is put on their support for cultural diplomacy? How often do they think laterally about what they could do to help and support travelling exhibitions? It would be worth exploring what resources they, and the British Council, have available to support international travelling exhibitions.

I am also aware that the National Lottery has been absorbed into the system of public funding in such a way that it is no longer perceived as a way of engineering new national initiatives, as it was when first established. In the 1990s the lottery was used very successfully as a way of raising the profile of culture through capital projects. A new government could redirect the lottery distributors to thinking what they could do to support British culture internationally through exhibitions and cultural projects, or, if necessary, by establishing a new lottery distributor.

It may be too much to hope that a new government, whichever party wins the election, could be internationalist in its thinking, not narrowly nationalist. It may be unrealistic to think that the national museums, currently constrained by reduced central government funding, should embark on new international initiatives. But, as we become less European in our cultural relationships, it is in our interests to think creatively as to what can, and should, be done to support what the national museums do throughout the world.

Charles Saumarez Smith was Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy and is now Chairman of the Royal Drawing School.

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