March 17, 2007

Westminster Hall debate on Cultural Diplomacy

Posted at 12:36 pm in Elgin Marbles

British Museum director Neil MacGregor regularly refers to Cultural Diplomacy. It was also the focus of a recent study by Demos. Here, in a debate by MPs on the subject, Derek Wyatt MP talks about possible methods of settling the Elgin Marbles Dispute.


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Cultural Diplomacy
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Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. I have sent four letters to Mr. Speaker in the past four weeks requesting a debate on soft power, because it is a very important part of cultural diplomacy.

I have been most influenced by Joseph Nye’s book on soft power. I was lucky enough to meet him at Harvard university just before Christmas, and we have not fully understood the way in which cultural diplomacy and soft power can work together. In the forthcoming spending review, I bet that the one activity to be cut will be all the cultural diplomacy and soft power touches, because we cannot see them. I should like to see the cultural diplomacy budgets across Government, and I should like to see them itemised. Do they amount to 1 per cent., 5 per cent., or 10 per cent.? It is easy to do that for tanks, weapons and missiles, but it is less easy for cultural diplomacy, but if we are to realise what soft power can do in the world, we must see those budgets.

Although I agreed with most of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, the British Museum has let us down badly in two ways. First, it does not fully understand the globalisation of cultural diplomacy. One can hardly move but for the Gulbenkian museums and other museums that have spread worldwide, and I look at the Getty museums and the way in which they have developed not only in their own country, but overseas. We must take the British Museum out of its current location. Why cannot we settle the Elgin marbles dispute by locating the British Museum in Athens, so that it is jointly owned and the marbles are permanently on loan? There must be a satisfactory resolution to the Elgin marbles dispute, and there must be a similar resolution to the dispute about the Maqdala treasures from Ethiopia. They are the oldest Christian relics in the world, and they sit in a cupboard in the British Museum. That is not reasonable; they belong to Ethiopia.

Mr. Vaizey: I do not want to induce a heckle from the Minister about a spending commitment, but it may not be the British Museum that has let us down. The Louvre’s work in Dubai has been undertaken in
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partnership with the French Government, and although I wholly support the proposals being made by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), they cost money and they need Government support.

Derek Wyatt: The French have a very different view of soft power. The British Council’s budget is embarrassingly small compared with what the French give, but we should examine what we do with it, because we do 10 or 15 times more than the French do through their equivalent.

The British Museum’s board must think about the globalisation of the space that we call cultural diplomacy, and the Tate must do so, too. It is fine having the Tate in Liverpool and in Cornwall, but we need it in India or in Kenya, and in the next 10 years, we must galvanise the idea of a shared culture and a shared diplomacy. We need a different viewpoint from the one that currently emanates from the Government.

I always struggle to find the location of cultural diplomacy in any embassy or anywhere that I travel, which is a shame. That is partly because we disaggregated the British Council from the museums under Mrs. Thatcher, and although the British Council quite welcomes it now, at the time it was a mistake. I chair the all-party British Council group, so I am probably president of its fan club. What it does is extraordinary, but I shall come to that later. My main worry is that, in the spending review, the one activity to go will be cultural diplomacy.

How could a more sophisticated cultural diplomacy policy work? Let us start with the English language. Almost 90 per cent. of the internet is in English, so we must make the British Library the global space for learning, knowledge and understanding on the net. However, we cannot do so without much more investment in the library’s digitisation. Although Microsoft has been unbelievably generous in providing £100 million, it is not enough. We need £100 million every year if we are going to realise that aim. If we do not do it, the Smithsonian Institution will, and that would be a great loss, because the British Library is the oldest, deepest library in the world. We must galvanise it and create an online version.


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