Government Departments: Soft Power

Lord Hall of Birkenhead Excerpts
Thursday 28th April 2011

(13 years, 1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Hall of Birkenhead Portrait Lord Hall of Birkenhead
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My Lords, I too, start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for introducing this debate on an important and broad subject, and one which I would like to broaden still further in talking about the role of culture and the arts in soft power. I declare an interest both as chief executive of the Royal Opera House and as a trustee of the British Council.

The recognition of the importance of culture and the arts in the exercise of soft power is still underdeveloped and underplayed in this country. There is an enormous difference between the amount of time, money and thought we spend on conventional diplomacy and on military interventions—necessarily so; I do not dispute that—and the amount of time, money and thought we spend on soft power, cultural diplomacy or cultural exchange, call it what you will, although I rather like the term “cultural exchange”. In my view, cultural exchange is seen as desirable but not essential. Yet the impact can be as dramatic and as long-lasting. Cultural exchange is a very effective way to build trust and strengthen relationships around the world. When it works well, it helps to explain and understand what lies behind conflict. It explains and can give understanding of different viewpoints and cultures; it breaks down national stereotypes; it can help to find solutions to issues and conflicts that may seem intractable; and it can help promote dialogue and deep and lasting relationships of mutual understanding.

One of the most obvious manifestations of cultural exchange is the big tours—exhibitions and performances —going around the world which are a vital part of the international work of our arts organisations. They have a huge reach and impact and can do things and reach places that conventional diplomacy cannot. For example, when the Tate took its Turner exhibition to Russia in 2008, it was at a time of fraught diplomatic relations between the UK and Russian Governments, Russia having ordered two British Council offices to shut down. The exhibition, however, passed off without a hitch. It was able to exist outside the realm of politics, and relationships at a cultural and human level were strengthened. Mutual understanding deepened because of that exhibition.

Another example is the Shah ’Abbas exhibition at the British Museum in 2009. Working in association with the Iran Heritage Foundation, the British Museum was able to exhibit pieces never before seen outside Iran, with the effect of both building trust for the UK in Iran and developing knowledge and understanding of Iran here in the UK. Persuading the Iranian president and others to allow those objects to leave the country was a lengthy and complicated process, but the result was incredibly powerful, producing a fantastic and unique cultural event that will live long in the memory.

At the moment, the superb Afghanistan exhibition, also at the British Museum, shows how cultural institutions can do current affairs. There are some truly amazing pieces that were so nearly lost over the years. Our impressions of Afghanistan, so much from the media, are of conflict—a conflict in which we are involved—yet here you see a country at the crossroads of the ancient world and of more recent history, too.

In an article for the Times last week, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, wrote about the wider significance of the loan of the Cyrus cylinder from the British Museum to the National Museum in Tehran. He said:

“Exhibitions are of course about objects. They are not about politics or diplomacy. But around the objects on show, exhibitions create a forum of public discussion, a space in which people may safely discuss difficult questions”.

That is a really important point. Cultural exchange like that should never be used to achieve political aims. That will fail but their very existence outside politics enables meaningful dialogue to take place.

I saw that myself in Cuba with the Royal Ballet in 2009. The response to the tour was phenomenal. People were queuing overnight for tickets in a country where dance is so integral to cultural identity. It was a huge occasion for Cuba, for our principal dancer Carlos Acosta and for us. It struck me that all sorts of conversations could take place that otherwise would not have happened, from being stopped in the street by people to the very highest levels of government. Now all that sort of work is being done by individual organisations using their own funds. How much more could be done with greater co-ordination by the Government and with some modest funding?

The big exhibitions and tours may grab the headlines but there is a lot of work that goes on below the radar that is equally important—maybe more so. Arts and culture can help to build citizenship and a democratic plural society. They give citizens a forum for self-expression and for challenging the status quo. This is not about telling people what to do or about transplanting our own ideas into another culture; it is about helping to provide spaces in which people can express themselves. I was struck recently by a quote from a Syrian student who, when asked by a British MP how he viewed the British Council, said, “It is my bubble of oxygen. It is my opportunity to express myself”. That is a powerful idea.

This does not mean putting up buildings or trying to recreate successful British institutions overseas. It is about enabling and supporting other nations to do it themselves. I am thinking particularly of the Arab world, and Egypt may be a good example of what I mean. It takes time and a huge amount of careful effort to build trust in countries such as Egypt, and there are no quick fixes, but the work that the British Council has been doing there has been established over a long period of time. Crucially, it cannot be about telling people what to think or how to do things. It has to be about self-determination and relationships.

One of the projects that the British Council has been running in Egypt is cultural leadership international, which seeks to identify, celebrate and support the next generation of international cultural leaders and help them develop their skills and talent. The programme fosters strong relationships and is helping to develop an international network of future cultural leaders, but it also builds capacity in all the countries where it is taking place by giving people the skills to contribute to their own societies and strengthen the influence and position of the cultural sector within civil society.

Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, was telling me of an exchange programme for curators that the British Council ran back in the 1980s. It produced six curators who are now directors at major museums in Germany. The legacy of that project is invaluable. In his view and mine, building relationships with the next generation is phenomenally important, and we should be doing more of that in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. We, the Royal Opera House, have been working with the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing to develop skills and capacity back stage. This will have a lasting impact which will benefit the wider cultural sector in China and will create a long-term relationship between our two organisations and the UK and China. This kind of capacity-building work is really important for the future.

I was in Abu Dhabi recently and went to Saadiyat Island, which the Abu Dhabi people are developing as a global arts hub. They are building outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, but what they want help with now is in developing the skills they need to create institutions that express their point of view and culture. Helping to develop capacity is something we are great at in this country—the British Museum is there, as it happens—and this is where we should be channelling our energies.

The opportunities for us are huge, but the current lack of clarity and co-operation between government departments and cultural organisations means that we are not making the most of them. There is a focus, a necessary focus, on trade and exports, but for our reputation and relationships generally and globally, there should be a focus on promoting cultural dialogue too. Communications between the various different agencies—the Foreign Office, DCMS, other departments, the Arts Council, the British Council and arts organisations—could be improved by the establishment of a committee or organisation to bring all those various parts together that is much broader and more inclusive than the Public Diplomacy Board. Is this something that the Minister would consider? A strategy document outlining how UK cultural institutions and individuals are able to contribute to exporting British values abroad, what might be expected of them and how they can be assisted would also help to strengthen the impact of much of the good work already being done. Again, I would love to hear the Minister's thoughts on this proposal.

The approach should not be so joined up or centralised as to become homogenised or overtly political in its aims. The independence of artists and cultural institutions to plough their own furrow gives them real credibility in the world. So there is a delicate balance to maintain. Different organisations must play to their strengths, and projects will be successful only if they are born out of a genuine synergy between contributing organisations, but the contribution of culture to soft power needs to be taken far more seriously. It needs to be properly thought through and given more powerful direction. Crucially, it must receive greater support from government, both financially and through advice and high-level backing, in order to fulfil its full potential for improving the global standing of the UK and for helping to build strong civil societies around the world.