Brown Bag: “Museums, Collections and Cultural Diplomacy – Some Reflections from UCL”

Brown Bag 7th March 2012

“Museums, Collections and Cultural Diplomacy – Some Reflections from UCL”

Sally Macdonald
Director of UCL Museums and Public Engagement

It’s been quite some time since I wrote up one of these Brown Bag reviews, and after the hard work and wonderful write ups from all my colleagues, I have to admit to feeling rather intimidated! That said, Sally’s presentation was a pleasure to attend, and, indeed, a pleasure to write up and think upon. So, without further preamble or ado, let us launch into the world of Cultural Diplomacy – which is, as it turns out, a complex one to negotiate, both personally and professionally.

Sally is the director of University College London’s Museums and Collections, as such having the responsibility for eight collections and, rather uniquely, the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. She has also served on a number of advisory committees, working parties and associations, and as recently been involved in setting up Heritage Without Borders – of which more below. Thus she is well placed to lead us through the sensitive, and sometimes surprising, landscape which comes into being when museums get involved in international activities.

In the early 2000s, Sally was involved in the DCMS Working Party on Human Remains. These meetings, made up of members of government, National, Independent and University Museums and other institutions were designed with the purpose of guiding the repatriation debate. It was Sally’s first encounter with the DCMS, and she found it interesting to note how this government body, and the National Museums in particular, found the issue of repatriation much harder to handle than other institutions involved.
Such a debate can, and has for some, including Sally, incited self-reflection, and a questioning of attitudes both individual and institutional. For Sally, the DCMS Working Groups certainly brought about a step-change in the way she thought about the collections in her care. Prior to these meetings, the Human Remains UCL held were, for Sally, objects – by the end of the process, they were people. This realization of the complexities of things began to extend to other pieces of material culture in her care, and she has personally and professionally become ever more involved in the diplomatic and international acts which surround them.

 But what are these diplomatic and international acts? Many of them fall under the umbrella term of ‘cultural diplomacy’. Though it has many definitions, that forwarded by Milton Cummings in 2003 is very commonly accepted. Cultural diplomacy, he states, is the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding.” What those exchanges and understandings are, however, vary from case to case and interested party to interested party. The separation of cultural from political diplomacy comes into question. It seems that the two are inextricably linked, and that, counter to the ideals of some, the independence of cultural action in an international arena is impossible. The crucial question is how aware cultural practitioners are of this intertwining of values and purposes, and how they work in a knowing way to achieve their stated goals.
There are various ways in which museums and cultural institutions can act diplomatically – intentionally or otherwise. Sally has herself been involved in a number of such activities and, from a purple box which makes a welcome change from Powerpoint slides, she takes the material traces which these have left behind.

Appropriately, for something so prettily wrapped, the first item to emerge is ‘The Gift’. Arguably the oldest form of cultural diplomacy – its age was noted by Marcel Mauss1 – the gift remains as important for institutions today as it was for the royal houses of medieval Europe. UCL sees itself as a global player, and as such it needs a distinctive gift to present to its potential partners. What should this gift be? In the case of UCL, it is a catalogue of their art collection, not originally designed to be given as a present. However, they are now being called upon to produce something which is more identifiably a formal offering. But this brings with it a number of difficult questions. What should that specifically designed gift be, and what should it do? If it is to be a catalogue, then what should it include? What languages should it be in and, crucially, what should it omit? If it is to be specifically directed to certain groups, should concessions to religious or political sensibilities be made and, if so, how far should these go?

The act of giving and receiving a gift is of course a complex one, fraught with social issues, but it is clear too that the gift itself is a manifold object, and one and the same time a simple item of generosity and a metonymic representation of the giver. Sally recognises that, from the contents of the catalogue to the packaging in which it is presented, this particular material artefact is a frame for the public, and international, image of UCL. In the short space of time which was available to us, it was unfortunately impossible to unpick the intricacies of the gift in great detail, in the case of UCL in particular, and in general. But perhaps you as readers might respond to the following question: what are the implications of inclusion, and exclusion in regard to a gift of cultural diplomacy?

The session then switched to another mode of physical/cultural exchange – repatriation. The DCMS Working Groups were instigated as a result of an agreement in 2000, made between the then Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia, Tony Blair and John Howard. When it comes to any politically sensitive act, including repatriation, those with higher stakes in the Establishment have moth more stringent legal strictures to abide by, and perhaps much more to loose – not just in terms of their physical collections, but also in terms of their cultural capital and self-identity. There was at the time a widespread fear about repatriation, which perhaps still persists in some quarters, that to let one object go might signify the opening of the floodgates, and perhaps for some institutions a loss of collections and icons so hugely central to their function and identity as to undermine their very notions of selfhood.

As yet, of course, this has not happened. Limits have remained. The Working Groups were originally intended to consider sacred objects but this discussion was shelved, and has not, as yet, been reasserted at a government level. But it is not only that things have been retained – there have also been more visibly positive, if rather intangible, gains made for many institutions as a result of repatriation. Sally provides concrete evidence of the positive relationships which can arise through the process of returning goods and artefacts. UCL has been able to build links with institutions including the Australian High Commission and Te Papa in New Zealand, and has also been able to extend its social and political networks to include dialogues with originary source communities themselves. All of the Australian human remains, however they came into the collection, have now been returned.

It is not just a question of human remains, however. UCL has also taken steps to return objects which came into its keeping in questionable ways. When some Bronze Age Thai pottery was discovered in the collection, the methods by which it was acquired came under scrutiny, and the Thai ambassador was invited to the collections to come and advise. In 2010, these 16 items were returned to the Museum in Bangkok. Sally believes that the fact that the holding institution approached the potential recipient, and not the other way around, was crucial to the relationship which has blossomed since, which has resulted in such benefits as a scholarship for a UCL student to study in Thailand. It is fascinating, and inspiring to learn that manifold benefits can be gleaned from something which institutions might well initially see to be a problem.

Exchanges might also be temporary or with certain conditions, and Sally turns now to the act of loan. Through various engagements, a relationship was established between UCL and the Egyptian Cultural Bureau which is still ongoing. UCL’s Petrie Museum is famous as an Egyptological institute, and the ECB requested that they might use some of its collections in their redesigned building. Through an application to Effective Collections, Sally’s colleagues were able to gain support for this venture, to be produced in collaboration with the ECB, and members of the local Egyptian community in London. The project has understandably been delayed by the the recent revolution in Egypt, and there was a time when it was unknown as to whether it would happen at all. However, the new regime is equally committed to the partnership and the number of Egyptian co-curators has increased. They have a desire to represent the personal, religious and national identities of the Egypt of the present: how to do this with an archaeological collection is, of course, something of a challenge for the institution. As if further evidence were needed for the intertwined nature of culture and politics, some of the co-curators have since asked UCL if it would be possible to use the Petrie as a forum in which to debate the new Egyptian constitution. One day, perhaps, given time and greater space, this is something a museum such as the Petrie might well aspire.

But institutions such as UCL and individuals such as Sally can also help with the aspirations of others – and herein lies the driver behind one of her most inspiring projects, Heritage Without Borders. Conceived through her frustration at being unable to respond to many international requests for help, HWB is a capacity building initiative which works in situations of poverty, conflict and disaster to exchange knowledge and skills regarding the protection and preservation of cultural heritage. It’s first projects, conservation summer schools for museum professionals, took place in Bosnia and Turkmenistan, and a trip to Albania is planned for later this year. Funding for these projects comes from a number of sources, and the British Council themselves will later this year fund an exchange programme between UK and Middle Eastern curators and heritage professionals, developing mentoring and partnering relationships which, it is hoped, will see not the imposition of knowledges and cultural frameworks, but a two way exchange.

Such projects as Sally has shown have made, and have yet to make, possible personal, public, and administrative transformations. How, she asks, will the work with HWB change the British Council, UCL, or governmental and cultural bodies in the Arabic world? How will it change us as cultural professionals, and as individuals?

International activities are, of course, not free of negative issues. The political alignments of interested parties in each diplomatic act are always open to question, and are often difficult. The cultural professional needs to be honest about how they position themselves within this, to make their own role, goals, and values clear. There is no doubt that museums can act more overtly and radically in global politics, as TATE’s support of Ai Weiwei goes to show. How far this should go, however, is a question to be debated. Whilst Sally does not believe that institutions can, or necessarily should, be apolitical, in terms of their activities or indeed in their interpretation and display, it does need to be understood that these attitudes and alignments will affect the ways in which institutions are seen by governments and communities, both at home and abroad. And of course, these relationships can go wrong: the return of objects to Egypt, instigated by the Petrie, was reported in the Arab press as a triumphal return with goods reclaimed from a colonial institution, which was initially upsetting. But Sally remains pragmatic – there is no way in which you can control all interpretations of your actions. All you can do, perhaps, is everything you can to further what you perceive as good – and this must carefully be distinguished from enforcing cultural primacy.

Admittedly, this is a long blog post – but this was a discussion which opened up a purple Pandora’s Box filled to the brim with opportunities and threats, triumphs and potential dangers. Once Sally had emptied it, then, what was left at the bottom? As in the myth, through all the political, social and physical vicissitudes of life, Hope, and the potential it brings for the future, remains in its ‘unbreakable home.’2

  1. Marcel Mauss, The Gift, (Abingdon: Routledge Classics, 2002)
  2. Hesiod. Works and Days, in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White, (Cambridge, MA. and London: Harvard University Press/ William Heinemann Ltd, 1914), l.95


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