Blog David Anderson
The BBC and the Arts In the Nations and Regions: Impartiality - and Equality?
I am a passionate supporter of a publicly-funded BBC. Along with the NHS, social care and the state education system, I regard it as one of the four vital pillars of public service on these islands - evidence that democracy works. If I ask questions, and challenge practice, it is because I want the BBC to survive and thrive at the centre of public life. It is a beacon of truths in a world of commercial interests. It provides a public space for debate that is vital for our democracy.
I was born in Northern Ireland, grew up in the industrial Midlands of England, and went to university in Scotland. For the last four years I have worked in Wales. I have lived in every nation of the United Kingdom.
The culture of any nation or region is an ecosystem, made up of a number of mutually dependent parts. As well as arts and cultural institutions, these also include the print and broadcast media, public and private funders, the education sector, the tourism industry and - last but not least - creative industries and individual professionals.
Also essential to all of this is the wider community, whose informed support and creative participation is the lifeblood of all cultural activity. A creative economy depends upon a creative society.
The nations and regions of the United Kingdom outside London - with the exception, arguably, of the central belt in Scotland - do not have all the elements that they need to ensure a thriving arts ecosystem.
Wales, for example, has very strong resources of talent and great national arts and cultural institutions. Through recent reports by Dai Smith on the role of the arts in education, and by Baroness Kay Andrews on the importance of cultural participation in overcoming barriers created by poverty, Wales has recognised the value of cultural education.
But, like much of the rest of the United Kingdom, we do not get our fair share of UK funding for our arts. Nor do we have the coverage from the UK media that its quality
deserves. This lack of recognition and publicity from the UK print and broadcasting media - with the credibility that comes with it - in turn makes it still harder for us to attract the private funding that we need so badly, to invest in our programmes and, for example, to provide match funding for Lottery bids.
Many of the key decisions that determine profile for the arts are made by publicly funded organisations based in London, such as the BBC and Visit Britain, which appear to have little knowledge or understanding of what is happening in the rest of the United Kingdom, and especially the devolved nations.
Funding of the arts, employment in the arts, public access to and participation in the arts, and control of the arts are also scandalously unequal. 71% of funding for the arts in the whole of the UK from trusts and foundations, corporate donors and private individuals goes to London institutions. The remaining 29% has to be shared out between all the other nations and regions.
We are in the second decade of the twenty first century, but we still retain the highly
centralised, nineteenth century, semi-colonial model that the arts should be concentrated in London, and that funding London is synonymous with serving the English regions and the nations of the UK. For Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland this undermines the principle, embedded in law, that culture is a devolved responsibility. It is a constitutional tension that remains unresolved.
All the evidence shows that concentration of power and funding in London is, in policy terms, a failure. Despite investment of over £1 billion annually of public and private funds in arts institutions in just three boroughs in Central London (Westminster, Southwark and Kensington and Chelsea), public participation levels in the arts in London are slightly lower than those across England as a whole.
Within England, the Arts Lottery has operated as a highly effective mechanism to take money from poorer communities and invest it in arts provision in Central London. Just five national performing arts organisations in London have received more (£315 million) from the Arts Lottery since 1995 than the 33 English local authority areas with lowest participation, representing 6 million people, which between them were awarded just £288 million over that period. Arts Lottery players of County Durham have contributed £34 million since 1995, but the area has received just £12 million.
The policies and practices of the media can exacerbate these divisions. Within the last year, both Melvyn Bragg and Tony Garnett (director of Cathy Come Home) have accused broadcasters of misrepresenting and sneering at working class people in TV dramas and documentaries. Recent research by the Open Society Foundations suggests that this perception is shared by many working class viewers themselves.
There is a challenge in all of this for the BBC, our publicly-funded UK national broadcaster. As funding for the arts from diverse public sources remains concentrated in one small area of England's capital city, and (as research by the Sutton Trust has shown) those employed in senior positions in broadcasting are recruited increasingly from men and women with privileged backgrounds, and the narrow circle of private support shrinks ever closer to central London, will the BBC's coverage of the arts shrink with it? And can this coverage now truly be described as impartial?
Within Wales, there is a much greater sense that culture in the broadest definition is a communal resource and belongs to everyone. At Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales, 28% of visitors to our seven museums across South, West and North Wales are from social classes C2DE. At a typical London national museum such as the National Gallery the figure is around a third of this, at 10%.
The BBC is a hugely important part of the arts ecosystem in Wales. The BBC's investment in Roath Lock in Cardiff with its drama productions has given a massive boost to our creative economy, and has made Cardiff a hub for related creative industries. The BBC has also made Wales a centre for music programming. There is a wealth of artistic talent and arts production of an international standard in Wales, yet the BBC in Wales - unlike England and Scotland - does not have a Centre of Excellence in the arts. As a result coverage of the richness of artistic activity within Wales is very limited, and on Network BBC it is almost non-existent.
Why does the Tate's Turner Prize - widely perceived in the contemporary art world to be tired and outdated - continue to get blanket coverage on Network BBC, when the critically more highly regarded Artes Mundi Prize in Wales has never in 12 years had any Network coverage? Research by the BBC itself shows that this lack of impartiality in its coverage of the arts in the nations and regions of the UK is the norm rather than the exception.
Even if it wins the vote on Scottish independence, Westminster has been revealed to have lost the hearts and minds of a substantial minority of its citizens in Scotland, the second largest nation in the United Kingdom. An article in the Guardian, published in early July, examined how the BBC was reporting on the referendum, and said that even a no vote should challenge the BBC 'to examine afresh how successfully it relates to constituent parts of the UK - and whether a more flexible, less monolithic notion of the future of the corporation ought to be embraced.'
Tony Hall, in a recent speech at the Pierhead Building in Cardiff, invited his audience to imagine Wales without the BBC. It is a fair challenge, but we existed long before the BBC with our languages and cultural identities. Some of us in Wales might ask him, in turn, to imagine a BBC that is not dominated by a London-centric perception of the world, and that better reflects the diversity of our nation's arts and cultures, our values and our debates. Without us - we who are outside London - not just the BBC but democracy itself will suffer, if we continue down the road we are on.
What are the solutions for the BBC? There should be a Centre of Excellence at BBC Wales, as there is in Scotland. We need devolved governance of the BBC in Wales through the BBC Trust, as recommended by the Silk Commission. This should be
underpinned by a separate extension to Charter agreement for Wales, and mechanisms to ensure fair representation of our arts on BBC Network. We need BBC Network to recognise that speakers of Welsh and other minority languages have a right to be heard in their own language on UK media. The BBC should monitor and publish annual data on its achievement of impartiality across the nations and regions. We need the Network BBC to be pro-active in overcoming a culture of inequality within the organisation.
And we need the BBC, with headquarters in London, to remember the importance of
geography, of the connections between culture and place. The nations and regions of the UK need the BBC to give us equality and parity of respect, and to free us to represent ourselves, in our own places and across the nations within the UK and abroad.
We want to commission London, not London (when it chooses) to commission us. Our nation’s share of the BBC budget should be devlolved in full to Wales.
As Hugh McDiarmid said, "You cannot light a match on a crumbling wall."
Let's build a better and more solid one.
*This is a summary of a more detailed paper I wrote, which can be found here:
 Four Nations Impartiality Review Follow-up: An analysis of reporting devolution’ – Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University – March 2010: http://cardiff.ac.uk/jomec/research/researchgroups/journalismstudies/fundedprojects/followupaccuracyandimpartiality.html
Exactly one month ago to today, Amgueddfa Cymru launched two publications which set out how museums and other arts and heritage organisations can help achieve the essential goal of equity of opportunity for all children to develop their talents. In this blog, David Anderson, Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru, shares his views about both publications and why this work is important.
A few years ago, I was involved in a project run jointly with a children's charity to offer creative design projects for children in care. Their work was exhibited in the galleries of a museum. One girl made a quilt that I still vividly remember. On it she had sewn the words, "Why does he get everything and I get nothing?”. I never learnt the story behind the words on that quilt, and perhaps it was too personal to share.
The earliest evidence of a child in Wales is the teeth of a girl aged 9 years, one of a group of Neanderthal humans whose remains had been washed into a cave in Pontnewydd, along with the bones of hyenas and other wild animals of that period. They have been dated to around 240,000 BC. Before her early death, this girl would have learnt her culture - making tools, cooking food, hunting, gathering flowers and burying her dead - from her parents and others in the group.
In a series he wrote and presented for Ulster Television in 1987-8 Professor John Blacking, the ethno-musicologist, said, "Every individual as a baby has thought in movement before thinking in words". Creativity is a movement of the body, he said. We are moved into thinking. For him, culture exists only in performance - for children as well as adults.
Not so long ago, children in Wales worked in workshops, factories and mines. They have always been makers of culture as well as recipients. Even today, children across the world make their own toys. Children in Western Asia still make carpets. The collections of museums are full of beautiful things made by children.
The extraordinarily fine Ardebil Carpet, that so awed and inspired William Morris, is believed by many to have been produced by the hands of children. The hardships endured by working children - in the past and today across the world - tell us what skills and creativity children are capable of, even under conditions of privation.
True creative cultural participation for children is not - or at least should not - be an option. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to participation in the cultural life of the community as one of the five fundamental rights. Who are we to deny that right to children?
In 1942, the Beveridge report identified squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease as five giant evils that Britain should slay, and the Post-War Labour Government set out to do this. But Beveridge should have added a sixth giant to his list: cultural exclusion. In our own time, Kay Andrews and Dai Smith have between them written a modern Beveridge report for the cultural lives of children in Wales.
Among their many key messages are that we should commit to provide:
(i) full ongoing creative participation - not just occasional access;
(ii) as a right - not just an option;
(iii) for every child - not just the few.
The cultural sector is Wales' second education sector. It compliments and enriches the school, college and higher education system. Each year, the seven museums of Amgueddfa Cymru alone serve approximately 250,000 schoolchildren and 750,000 children and adults in family groups. The creative, experiential learning that museums can offer has been shown time and again over the years to inspire children who, for the school system alone, are hard to reach.
Museums and other arts and heritage organisations have a vital role in inspiring, extending and developing each child's engagement with their cultural offer. But children's cultural lives are far wider than than can be found even in our national and local cultural institutions.
Every child has their own talents and potential. Is it bringing people together and making friends, identifying plants, writing a diary, caring for older people, dancing, diagnosing faults and repairing machines, bee-keeping, telling stories, taking photographs, designing electronic circuits, playing sport, to studying birds and animals, shaping metal, writing and performing music, exploring, making others laugh, seeing patterns others miss, testing water quality, sharing skills, carving in wood and stone, and a thousand other ways to make the world a better place? Any of these, and a mind that is always curious, critical and open to new ideas and experiences.
Some children want to become Billy Elliott and they should be supported in doing so . But most want to be something else.
The industrialist John Harvey-Jones said that everyone has talent; it is the job of the educator to help them to find it. And it is particularly the role of museums and other arts and cultural organisations to help children to find their talents in the sciences, arts and humanities, in a welcoming and social environment.
If we limit ourselves to telling children what we ourselves know, we do them, and future society, a great disservice. That would be not education but counter-education. Yet far too often - through a conservative and anti-intellectual mis-appropriation of our historic public purpose - it is counter-education that we offer.
These two publications on Transforming Futures set out these new agendas for museums and other arts and heritage organisations in achieving the essential goal of equity of opportunity for all children to develop their talents. Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales began work on them in 2012. But they very much compliment and support the recommendations of Kay Andrews' and Dai Smith's reports.
But whereas those reports were - quite rightly - principally concerned with national policy and infrastructure, the Transforming Futures publications are intended more to support cultural institutions on the ground. Among the recommendations of the Transforming Futures reports are proposals for:
(i) fundamental changes in the work of cultural institutions themselves
(ii) new research on effective practice by cultural organisations
(iii) a new code of ethics for cultural organisations with principles to guide our work.
Poverty and exclusion in Wales - and across the UK - is growing year by year. We have an ethical responsibility to respond.
It is our task to create something new: a National Cultural Service for Children. Like health, education, housing and every other universal service, children's cultural participation must be developed locally, if it is to be effective, but within a national framework.
We should not say we cannot afford it. When the Beveridge Report was completed in 1942, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer tried to prevent its publication, saying that it was unaffordable. Yet, a few years later, the post-War Attlee Government implemented the most radical programme of equality that Wales and the UK has ever seen.
But decade by decade, as the NHS has provided health services free at the point of delivery, and comprehensive schools have given every child free education, the giant of cultural exclusion has continued to stalk the nation unchallenged.
We can change this. So that no child should need to say, "Why does he get everything, and I get nothing?".
Happy Birthday Big Pit
Big Pit National Coal Museum celebrates 30 years as a major visitor attraction this year and we celebrated the occasion yesterday in the company of members of the local community who have supported the Museum, staff at Big Pit and the Minister for Culture & Sport John Griffiths who had a tour of the Museum.
Since opening in 1983 Big Pit has welcomed more than 3.5 million people who can go 300 feet underground to find out what life was like for men who worked there. In 1913, one in ten Welsh people were employed in the coal industry and many more were dependent on it for a living – by the end of the 20th century, only one deep mine remained in Wales.
Big Pit employed 1,300 people and produced around a quarter of a million tons of coal a year. The buildings are the same as they were when the mine closed in 1980, but now visitors descend the shaft with a real miner and see what life was like for the thousands of men who worked at the coal face.
The Museum is set in the unique Blaenafon industrial landscape, designated a World Heritage Site in 2000 and is an exciting and informative day out for visitors.
September has crept up on us already and autumn’s well on its way!
It’s been a successful summer across all of our sites, with nearly a quarter of a million visitors being welcomed over August alone across the seven museums. That’s a great achievement and I hope our visitors have enjoyed their experience. We’ve got an exciting line up of exhibitions, events and activities now until Christmas across all seven museums including Peter Blake’s exhibition of works inspired by Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood which will be on show at National Museum Cardiff from 23 November. The exhibition will launch a year-long festival in 2014 – Dylan Thomas 100 – which will mark the centenary of the birth of the poet Dylan Thomas.
Last week I was invited to Bologna in Italy to speak at a two-day final conference of the LEM project "The Learning Museum".
“The Learning Museum” is a network project funded by the Lifelong Learning Programme Grundtvig (2010-2013) which aims to establish a permanent network and web space for museums and adult educators to participate in a learning society and in a knowledge-based Europe.
Seventeen European countries and the United States of America are represented in LEM. Its aim is to create a network of museums and cultural heritage organizations, to ensure that museums play an active role with regard to lifelong learning, and to raise awareness among decision makers at national and European level.
The conference was intended as a meeting place to facilitate networking and develop further collaborations at European level and also an opportunity for participants to discuss the outcomes of the project and share the knowledge developed throughout the three years of its duration, as well as giving a chance to share experiences and exchange ideas with colleagues from all over Europe.
Some interesting ideas emerged. It was striking how many of these involved greater cooperation and consolidation in the face of the financial crisis common to almost all European countries. In the Netherlands, for example, there are two museums associations which will now merge. Central, regional and local government are being encouraged by the sector to coordinate their museum policies. Speakers from the Netherlands said that development of a vision for each museum, before governments decided on them, was essential.
To find out more about the LEM project and the LEM reports go to
Summer holidays means it’s a really busy time for our sites and there’s so much going on at all our museums – something for the whole family so if you’ve visiting one of our seven museums, I do hope you all enjoy a great experience over the next few weeks.
I spent last week up in north Wales and visited the National Eisteddfod in Denbigh for a few days. Amgueddfa Cymru has a stand at the Eisteddfod every year and it’s a great to engage with people and tell them what our sites have to offer. There was a different theme every day of the week and when I was there on Monday the focus was Neanderthal Wales. The connection is that the Pontnewydd and Elwy Valley Caves are in Denbighshire and were the focus of museum excavations years ago. Then on Tuesday we celebrated the artist John Piper and explorer Charles Darwin both of whom were very inspired by Dyffryn Clwyd. It was good to enjoy the cultural festival, meet new people and see some of our heritage partners.
Whilst I was up in north Wales, I also had a chance to visit our National Slate Museum in Llanberis in Snowdonia where I joined Dafydd Roberts and the team there in welcoming Baroness Kay Andrews. Baroness Andrews, who grew up in Tredegar, has just stepped down as Chair of English Heritage, and has now been commissioned by the Welsh Government to write a report by January 2014 on how the cultural sector in Wales can work together more effectively to address poverty.
At Llanberis currently there’s a new exhibition which showcases the life's work of artist Falcon Hildred, documenting the industrial landscapes and buildings of England and Wales. The exhibition, a partnership between the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust Limited, has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
I also went over to Wrexham for the opening of the exhibition of the Mold Gold Cape at Wrexham Museum. They certainly know their Bronze Age artefacts in the area and they’ve done a spectacular job of the exhibition. It’s well worth going to see if you’re in the area.
After a busy week which really tired me out, I have been relaxing by watching Ken Loach's film, The Spirit of '45. Perhaps relaxing is the wrong word to use in response to a powerfully argued and moving tribute to the achievements of the Attlee government, and footage of the slum conditions of pre-War Britain that shows why such changes were so necessary.
The famous Mold Gold Cape comes to Wales
I’m delighted that one of Europe’s most important Bronze Age finds has arrived at National Museum Cardiff this week! The display of the Mold Gold Cape, on loan from the British Museum, was officially opened in a special event on Wednesday by the Minister for Culture & Sports, John Griffiths.
A highlight exhibit at the British Museum, the ceremonial gold cape, found in north Wales, was made around 3,700 years ago during the Early Bronze Age. It’s one of the finest examples of prehistoric sheet and embossed-gold working in Europe. It's craftsmanship and materials reveal the wealth and significance of north east Wales at this time.
The cape was discovered by workmen near Mold in 1833, many years before the establishment of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales. Having the Mold Gold Cape return to Wales from the British Museum offers a wonderful opportunity for local people and visitors to enjoy and find out more about their heritage and the early past.
The ancient artefact is in Cardiff until 4 August and then goes to Wrexham Museum from 7 August -14 September, as part of Spotlight Tours, a programme of loans organised through the British Museums’ Partnership UK Scheme.
Working in partnership with other museums enables precious artefacts of Welsh origin like this to be more accessible to the people of Wales. The Mold Cape contributes significantly to our understanding of cultural expression and power relations in Early Bronze Age Europe, reflected both in life and in death.
There are activities and events related to the Mold Cape here all month so if you’re in the Cardiff area, or in Wrexham next month, why not come and have a look at this unique artefact?
Supporting Kids in Museums
The launch of the ‘Kids in Museums’ manifesto with the Minister for Culture and Sport John Griffiths and Children’s Commissioner Keith Towler took place at National Museum Cardiff this morning. It was a great event and good to see so many young people involved and supporting this project.
A few weeks ago Maria Miller, the English Culture Secretary, made a speech in which she justified the arts and culture on economic grounds. I was glad to hear John Griffiths challenge this reductionist and limited perspective, by emphasising the social and educational value of museums. We are the largest provider of learning outside the classroom in Wales, and play a key role in many communities across the nation.
Amgueddfa Cymru supports the Kids in Museums Manifesto which pledges to work towards putting the twenty points – from inviting teenagers to hang out at museums to creating a comfortable safe place for children and families – into practice. There is a Welsh language version of the manifesto, produced with support from the Welsh Government.
Something that’s fast becoming a star attraction at National Museum Cardiff is a beautiful bronze sculpture of a galloping horse by the famous 19th century French Impressionist, Edgar Degas. The work, which has found a permanent home alongside other works here, has been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax from the estate of the artist, Lucian Freud, who died in 2011, and allocated permanently to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum of Wales. The sculpture will be a major addition to our collection, of which we can all be proud.
Last weekend was particularly busy for National Museum Cardiff. We joined up with the BBC and a host of wildlife partners to host the ‘Summer of Wildlife’, a fun day of discovering more about our wildlife and we also supported the Welsh language festival Tafwyl in the grounds of Cardiff Castle with a chance for visitors to see the clogmaker from St Fagans and experience some of our natural history and art collections on our stand. Tafwyl Festival helps Welsh language thrive in the capital and we were more than happy to support this successful event.
At the end of May Amgueddfa Cymru had a very successful presence at both the Urdd Eisteddfod and the Hay Festival.
Over 5000 people attended our stand at the Urdd Eisteddfod in Boncath, north Pembrokeshire, where the focus was on the National Wool Museum, being just half an hour away from the Maes. John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport visited the stand and Stephen Crabb MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire really got stuck into the knitting with the giant knitting needle! At the GwyddonLe science pavilion there was an opportunity to learn more about the archaeology of the Preseli Mountains and the Bluestones with Ken Brassil.
At the Hay Festival, we shared a stand with Cadw, the Royal Commission and the Historical Houses Association under the branding History Wales. We ran a number of activities for children during the week highlighting in particular the 30th birthday of Big Pit: National Coal Museum and craft work from St Fagans. The stand was extremely busy, and it was a great opportunity to work with partner organisations to promote Welsh History. John Griffiths, Minister for Culture and Sport, visited the stand to launch the latest edition of Big Pit’s people’s history magazine, Glo, which was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Big Pit as a museum.
Our new children’s book ‘Albie the Adventurer: Dinosaur in the Forest’ was launched officially at the festival in an interactive session with children. The story is by Grace Todd, and is based on a workshop run for Foundation Phase children in the Clore Discovery Gallery at National Museum Cardiff, where Albie discovers the sights and sounds of the prehistoric forest! I’m sure the book will charm children and grown-ups alike!
One event which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago was the National Theatre Wales’ production ‘Praxis Makes Perfect’. It was an immersive gig imagining the life of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the millionaire Italian communist who was at the heart of many of the most extraordinary events of the twentieth century. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the show will be going on tour to festivals this summer. I’d definitely recommend! And on the subject of things Italian, I have also been reading The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas, a Library of Wales publication, about a group of men who meet in an Italian café in an industrial community in the period around World War II. For me, Gwyn Thomas is a real discovery, a powerful writer with (is it just my imagination?) just a touch of Damon Runyon?
It’s May already and I must apologise for my lack of blog posts recently. It’s been a busy time for Amgueddfa Cymru.
I’m delighted that we have ended the year with another set of strong visitor figures attracting 1,745,315 visitors, exceeding 1.7m visitors for the first time ever. In 2012, we celebrated 1.69 million visits as the highest total ever recorded since free entry was introduced in April 2001, and this year we had an extra 55,289 visitors compared to the previous year of year, up by 3.27%.
Amgueddfa Cymru has now achieved record visitor figures for two consecutive years and I am delighted that we’ve succeeded in breaking yet another record this year, which is testimony to the quality of the service delivered by the Museums and the true value of the Welsh Government’s free entry policy.
It’s been a challenging time for the organisation. The current financial climate poses unprecedented challenges for every public sector organisation in Wales and Amgueddfa Cymru is no exception. Amgueddfa Cymru is facing a reduced budget and must find £2.5m in savings over the next three years. We have recently undertaken a period of consultation with staff and partners regarding a proposed new structure for the organisation which will be announced shortly. I’m very grateful for the patience and cooperation of Amgueddfa Cymru staff during this difficult period.
The proposed changes will not affect the day-to-day operations of the seven national museums across Wales. In finding savings, we have given priority to sustaining services for users. Amgueddfa Cymru will continue to offer visitors quality experiences at each of its sites.
Since I last posted on my blog, a new Culture & Sports Minister has been appointed in the Welsh Government, John Griffiths AM whom I had the pleasure of meeting recently. I am very grateful for the support and work of the previous Heritage Minister Mr Huw Lewis over the past few years and I’m really looking forward to working with Mr Griffiths.
It seems like a long time ago now but I was in Chongqing in China at the beginning of March for the opening of our Amgueddfa Cymru exhibition Wales: Land of the Red Dragon at the China Three Gorges Museum. Promoting Wales as a contemporary nation through international work is one of our main priorities and this partnership is an excellent way to give the 30 million people living in the Chongqing region the chance to learn more about Wales’ rich and unique assets in culture, history and the environment.
I recently bought a copy of E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary. It is a few years since I last read anything by E.P. Thompson, and his Customs in Common has long been on my list of future reads. I found the postscript to the 1976 edition, in which he discusses Morris’s place in the history of communism, moving because of the very personal way in which Thompson refers to his own thinking on this subject.
Realities of Devolution
Last week, I was delighted to attend the relaunch of the hugely successful Sharing Treasures by Huw Lewis, our Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage.
Under the initial scheme, local museums were able to apply for grants to put on exhibitions and raise gallery standards in order to be able to borrow national collections from Amgueddfa Cymru for display. Though we remain an integral partner, the scheme has now been extended to allow libraries and archives to also borrow items from the national collections. It also allows museums to apply for grants to develop touring exhibitions as well as apply for a grant more than once so that they can develop successful projects. Importantly, financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund has also been secured for 2012/13 to extend the parameters of the initiative. Many people attended, and we had an interesting day of discussions. I was asked to say a few words, and was glad that I was able to express how important I believe the scheme to be. We as national organizations do not own the national collections, but simply hold them in trust for the people of Wales. We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to them, and this scheme allows us to give more people the opportunity to engage with the national collections.
This ties in nicely with a meeting I attended yesterday - the AHRC Museum Ethics Network Workshop. This was the first of five such workshops, one of which will be held in Cardiff. Yesterday's was held at Leicester at the School of Museum Studies at the University. Many interesting presentations were given about the link between ethics and social justice, and the failure of some museum organisations in the UK to think of ethics in those terms. It opened up the prospect of UK museums rethinking their ethical frameworks with a view of putting more emphasis on public engagement. We are lucky to have such a resource as the School of Museum Studies in the UK. They provide intellectual rigour to museum practice that may otherwise not be addressed.
One other event I wanted to mention was the Great British Art Debate which took place on Saturday. It marked the end of a three-year programme which has involved four gallery organizations across England (Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield) working together to explore questions about nationhood, regionalism and artistic identity today through a series of exhibitions and events. The speakers were almost all from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or the English regions. Some speakers strongly challenged the basis for the project as a whole. Indeed, two Scottish speakers challenged the concept of Britishness and, by implication, the authenticity of the name of Tate Britain in the context and the reality of devolution. The speaker from Northern Ireland was equally critical, saying that English art institutions have collected very little art produced by Northern Irish artists who stayed in Belfast during the troubles. They prefer instead to collect work by international artists who may have briefly visited Northern Ireland during that time. Indeed, overall, the day questioned many of the premises on which the project was based. It left me with the sense that there was a growing separation within the cultural world between institutions based in London and the rest of the UK. This may well reflect the realities of devolution.
Chongqing and Wales
Yesterday, I returned from China having spent just under a week in Chongqing and Beijing. Though it wasn't my first visit to China, it was my first as Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru. My visit was timed to coincide with the First Minister's visit to China, and I was part of a small cultural delegation which included Rebecca Matthews, Director of the British Council in Wales. It was an excellent opportunity to meet old friends in China and to make new ones, cementing the growing relationship between both countries. Welsh Government staff and British Council staff had worked hard on the programme, and I am extremely grateful for their support in making all the arrangements.
Having hosted the successful Dazu Rock Carvings exhibition here in Cardiff earlier this year, much of my discussions in Chongqing focused on delivering an exhibition from Wales to China in 2013. There is a great deal of interest in China about Wales's culture and history, and it will be an excellent opportunity for us to celebrate our heritage internationally. Three staff members are going to Chongqing in early November to progress these discussions, and though plans are an early stage, there is a great deal of excitement about the proposed exhibition already.
I had a number of interesting meetings during my trip. Everyone was extremely welcoming, and there were discussions about exchanging not only objects but also sharing expertise through a series of staff exchanges. China is investing a great deal in Museums at present, and many new Museums are being built. There is therefore a need for more curators and conservators, and sharing skills with international partners is important in order to be able to achieve this.
Amgueddfa Cymru has a MoU with the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing, and it was fantastic to be able to visit the museum. We presented as a gift to the museum a ceramic teapot by Walter Keeler, and the First Minister was present. We had a fascinating discussion over lunch with the Director and his staff, where we compared the history of Western socialism in the UK in the post war period with Chinese socialism.
During all of our meetings with senior politicians and officials in both Chongqing and Beijing, all hosts emphasised the importance of culture and education as a basis for a strong relationship between Wales and China. This provides a number of opportunities for Wales, but also provides a challenge in this economic climate as funding will be needed to meet expectations!
Inspiring our thinking
I have just returned from a very interesting trip to Stockholm, as part of our development of the Making History project at St Fagans. Along with other colleagues from Amgueddfa Cymru, we went over to look at museums that may offer some inspiration for the redevelopment. Our Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage - Huw Lewis - was in Stockholm at the same time, and joined us in looking at some of the museums.
At Skansen Museum we were met by John Brattmyhr (Director) and Kerstin Holm Soderkvist (Learning Officer). We learnt about how they'd gone about trying to seek more corporate sponsorship and also how they've expanded their catering facilities. This is a challenge we face at St Fagans! I was greatly impressed by the scale of the site, and the fact that they have more than 30 staff looking after the programme of events and educational services that are run at the museum.
We then went on to Vasa Museum. It has a huge impact when you see it for the first time, and has an interesting history. It is a ship that sank on its maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour. It displays some of the personal possessions that were recovered as well as some of the skeletons. The way they are displayed allow for more very powerful personal stories to be told. They have even facially reconstructed some of the skeletons, which is particularly striking. To copy with the fact that they receive double their anticipated visitors, a new entrance is being build. A similar challenge once again for us at St Fagans!
From a personal perspective, I was grateful that my vegan diet was catered for without any problem. I thought that the dinner arranged by the British Embassy in an Italian restaurant might have proved particularly difficult but the chef cooked me a lovely vegan dish. I became vegan for health reasons rather than as a conscious decision, but I must admit that I feel so much better for it. And I'm trying some new and interesting dishes as a result!