V&A Podcast - Cultural Diplomacy
Season 1, episode 16
(GA:) Welcome to the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I’m Glenn Adamson Head of Research at the V&A. In this episode we will be talking about museums and cultural diplomacy. At some time or other you may have come across the phrase ‘soft power’, that is global influence that is not strictly economic, nor military, nor even political in nature. Rather soft power is cultural, it implies that a nation can achieve its goals through non confrontational persuasive means. There are many forms of soft power, think of English Language films which are seen the world over or music, which can cross language barriers to promote shared understanding. There is no doubt that art and design are another type of this cross cultural communication, and as the world’s greatest museum of art and design the V&A has a special role to play when it comes to cultural diplomacy. How do we approach this vital part of our mission? And what are the pitfalls we might encounter on the way? Here to discuss museums and cultural diplomacy is Kirsten Bound, Head of International Innovation at the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts or NESTA. We are also very pleased to welcome to the podcast the Director of the V&A, Martin Roth. Kirsten perhaps I can begin with you, what is your understanding of the concept of Cultural Diplomacy?
(KB:) Well thanks very much it’s great to be here. There are as you say a million different types of Cultural Diplomacy, the ways in which culture can influence other countries behaviours and actions. Sometimes calling it soft power makes it seem like it’s fluffy or ineffectual but actually this is a really powerful force. For hundreds of years throughout history people have used arts, literature, performance and artefacts to shape other people’s perceptions of their countries. From 1851 with the Great Exhibition right through to modern day expos, from the way that the Thai government funds restaurants around the world as a way of spreading Thai culture, something the Taiwanese have recently copied with a gastro diplomacy program. It’s not just about high culture and sharing artefacts between museums, but also we can think of the examples of modern day music. I don’t think the Korean government would have ever expected K-Pop to ever have such an influence on the global media, I think everyone can do the Gangnam Style dance, which you might not have expected a few years ago.
(GA:) That’s really interesting Kirsten, partly because it makes me realise for the first time that the V&A is among other things an archive of Cultural Diplomacy. Artefacts were used in this way, as a form of soft power, in earlier times. But before we get onto that, can I ask you to explain a bit about your own role at NESTA, and in fact tell our listeners what NESTA is?
(KB:) NESTA is the UK’s innovation foundation. We are a charity that tries to help bring ideas to life, we do this through a mixture of investment, research and analysis, and also practical experimentation of new ways of supporting innovation, both in terms of driving economic growth but also solving social challenges and helping boost the creative economy in the UK. I am Head of International Innovation. I am really interested in looking at how ideas move and are exploited around the world. In particular I am interested in looking at how the rise of emerging economies is shifting the global innovation system, and really what this means for countries like the UK.
(GA:) Ok, Fantastic. Martin, Director of the V&A of course you have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the purposes of the museum. When you hear the museum described as a tool of cultural diplomacy, does that match your ideas?
(MR:) It’s a dichotomy, it’s two sides of the same medal. Think about the great collections that we have in Europe that somehow, hate to say it, are often looted art. Think about the Louvre and other museums, but at the same time has all the potential to bring people together, coming out of different times, coming out of conflict zones, sometimes even of wars. Think about how museums served in the Cold War to bring people together, starting this cultural diplomacy, what happened in the Soviet Union in terms of museums. In the fifties and sixties the first exhibitions from Britain, from Germany, from the US, in Moscow, helped to create a new understanding in difficult times. Talking about the V&A makes it even more feasible. If the British Museum is somehow the child of the enlightenment then the Victoria and Albert Museum is somehow the grandchild of the enlightenment. That idea of Prince Albert was definitely important in terms of social difficulties all over Europe, they needed institutes to bring people together. That idea of creating the World Fair, the Great Exhibition in 1851 was the beginning of a new era, and the V&A is the legacy of it, the offspring of that idea. Meeting in a free, and open space, talking to each other even in times of conflict. Part of that legacy, part of that information, is still sitting in the genetic pool of our collection. We work with other museums all around the world, we have a collection that is from all around the world, we have a collection that is made for everyone, we have a collection that is easy to understand if you explain it because it is always related to the daily life of people even if it’s renaissance or medieval art, it’s a daily life based approach.
(GA:) That’s a little bit about where we come from and the broad picture of the museum. In your role as director, when you come to the museum in the morning do you think about what you’re doing as a cultural diplomat, do you see that as a big part of your role?
(MR:) The way I described it, I think I have my difficulties with that notion. If you do it on purpose, if you use it for political reasons, then it is not working. It is content based, it has a vision, it’s related to objects, it’s related to research and science, but it does not have a political strategy as a headline. Then we would be a political institution and it doesn’t work this way round.
(GA:) You think of the implications of running a museum like ours, rather than the museum as a specific tool of implementation?
(MR:) I think it is even less complicated. It has to do with the strategy we have for our exhibitions, for our research program, it’s the daily life of a museum, and if you combine that daily life, that purpose, that strategy, with other museums around the globe that’s a kind of platform that you create trust, confidence. You can build on that platform and you can do more together, we have a lot of examples, what we did with China over the last fifteen, twenty years in the V&A but also at other museums around Europe, that helped to build confidence and trust.
(GA:) Kirsten, when you hear Martin describing this role of the museum what do you think as an outside observer to the sector?
(KB:) I started working on the theme of cultural diplomacy in about 2006-2007 at Demos with a chap called John Holden who’s done some great work in this area. For me it was about being exposed to the incredible range of relationships and activities which our cultural institutions have around the world. A visitor to a museum would never perceive the amount of behind the scenes work that is going on in terms of exchanging collections, capacity building, training or just exchanging of ideas. I think it is an incredible behind the scenes network which the UK has. It is interesting the point you raised about it being a tool or an instrument for political will, I think that’s a really interesting question. In the UK we have got a very different position to some governments in the way that they use their cultural artefacts and institutions. Take even the French, where I think there is a much closer relationship between culture and politics historically because of Francophonie, because of lots of reasons. So I think we have a privileged position in the UK where we do have a set of very autonomous cultural institutions that themselves maintain a very powerful international network that benefits the UK.
(MR:) It’s just the sheer existence, the reason that we are existing is part of diplomacy. It’s just that we have to be really cautious when it comes to political expectations. Even tourism, people coming from all over the world to London, learning more about what we are doing, how we see the world, how we think about our past, what we think about history helps to create a common understanding. It’s common ground for people to do more together.
(GA:) Martin, would you agree with Kirsten that the UK Government is somewhat hands off in terms of the content of the museums? You don’t feel that there is pressure from the government to the museum to work in certain ways?
(MR:) Glenn, this is a rather difficult and ongoing debate for as long as I can remember. With my German background I know that we always try and keep a distance from the Government. Even the other way around, I started to work with the government in the late nineties together with the foreign office in China and other places of the world because I learned if we do it together we are more effective, more efficient, sometimes it’s just more fun. It’s not a political instrument, as Kirsten said in the UK there is this arms length principle that is everywhere, there is that distance. I can’t remember that there was one situation when the government asked us to do something, it was exactly the opposite.
(GA:) Martin, can we talk about a concrete example of cultural diplomacy in action at the V&A? Which is this interesting exhibition we did about street art in Libya after Gaddafi was deposed.
(MR:) I’m prepared to talk about it but I think it is somehow a little bit misleading because what we do in the V&A is a kind of everyday life cultural diplomacy. People from all over the world, tourists coming to the V&A celebrating their own culture in the V&A, that’s all part of that cultural diplomacy. The Libya exhibition that we did in Tripoli and Benghazi was a very unusual one. The V&A has a great collection of street art and street art was extremely important in the revolution against Gaddafi. We supported artists and people from the street who tried to protest against Gaddafi with paintings on the street during the night time , which were taken away during the day time. It was really a fight going on with street art. So we made an exhibition with the help of the British Council in Tripoli and Benghazi that helped to create some kind of awareness. It was extremely important because it was not only military aid in this case it was culture that created this intervention. I think that it is important that we help in a very peaceful way. What’s going on in Syria is pretty much the same, the V&A worked with Damascus for 150 years, and I think we have to be prepared to do something right now in the refugee camps.
(GA:) Kirsten, when you hear Martin describing situations like this where there is zones of active conflict as well as zones where we would normally be in a peaceful exchange, do you see a particular role for the museums there that perhaps they are not practising as often as they might?
(KB:) I think there is definitely a case that museums and cultural organisations can reach parts that politics can’t. There’s something very interesting about the role of not just the elite interactions between leaders but also the interactions between our everyday life and a culture’s everyday life in a completely different scenario. Whether that be driven by conflict or a completely different set of religious beliefs or ideology. Particularly with the emergence of new technology platforms there is a huge opportunity for museums to really be able to support and nourish, not control in any way, but nourish the interactions that happen within social media using technology platforms as a way of reaching those populations. We’ve seen the explosion of social media in China, we have Twitter, China has WeChat. China is in the middle of one of the world’s biggest internet crack downs, but still this is a way to reach into Chinese culture, and to have open discussions about issues. That is another really important point to think about museums role as connecting everyday lives of cultures around the world.
(GA:) I suppose that’s quite a recent phenomenon because it used to be that to experience a museum you had to physically go there, but of course in an age when museum collections are online, and so for example somebody sitting in Syria, if they do have internet access, can look at a million objects that are in the V&A’s collection, that completely changes the picture.
(KB:) Definitely. When we were writing our report for Demos back in 2007 when we were celebrating the idea of Bebo and Myspace, and it seems so archaic to think of those tools now, when we know that a billion videos are uploaded on YouTube everyday, that the reach of platforms like Twitter, I think that’s incredible. At NESTA that is one of the really important areas in which we are expanding our work. Bringing together artists, technologists, cultural institutions, researchers to understand how you can use new platforms to expand your reach to audiences around the world. We’ve actually got a £7million fund for R&D in the arts which I would encourage anyone to apply to if they’ve got ideas of how they can as technologists work with cultural institutions to help them expand their reach to new populations.
(MR:) If I may add two things. First of all I think it is nothing new it was always there. The situation of cultural institutions in the twenty first century is that we have to explain why we are there and what we are doing, and I think that’s so important that people like Kirsten helped us in explaining the role in a bigger picture. That the role of the museum was always important for the society. The way we educated our next generation about other civilisations was always there. We talked about xenophobia, that’s something that always happens in a museum, it’s part of our setting. But I think it’s more important in the twenty first century when we have to explain why we need the money to do a thing like that, so that’s one part of it. The other explanation for me at least is the change of politics, the new world order starting in the mid eighties or late eighties, and I hope I can express what I want to say because it’s a rather tricky topic. I think somehow we have been like a cultural business card for the Western hemisphere. In order to go to those countries that have been far away for the last fifty sixty years and to explain that’s where we come from, that’s what we are, and that’s what we are going to do. Just imagine twenty years ago it was nearly impossible to go to China, and completely impossible to do an exhibition in China, or East Germany/West Germany. I remember an exhibition in the eighties in Germany, and I am still convinced that helped open the border, this understanding on both sides of the iron curtain. Once the iron curtain came down then the wall collapsed. We needed this kind of dialogue, and it was easier to put dialogue in objects than to have a political dialogue. I think tourism and that cultural dialogue helped a lot to re-create an understanding of East and West after that new world order started. But that’s twenty years ago and I think we have to find new methods for working together in the future.
(GA:) Kirsten, do you see any downsides to the idea that museums are working in this way? Or the idea that art and design more broadly should be seen as instruments of cultural diplomacy?
(KB:) If someone was to be considered an instrument, I’m sure no one wants to be considered an instrument by anyone else at all, but to be able to act as a channel of new discussions, new dialogues, new ideas, to flow between different cultures I don’t see it as so much of a problem, and we were talking earlier about the idea of instrumentalising culture as certain governments tend to do, but I don’t see it as a major issue.
(GA:) What would be a line that you wouldn’t want to see crossed then? Is there a sense of the politicisation of art and design that you would find problematic? I’m not saying that’s happening in Britain now but where would you draw that line?
(KB:) Art and design has always been political I mean that’s what makes it fascinating right? The idea of the CIA sponsoring Jazz tours in the fifties or sponsoring Jackson Pollock, I find it completely fascinating that this was such an instrument of Cold War diplomacy, but at the same time would Jackson Pollack have considered himself an instrument of that? He was doing what he thought, what he wanted. I think that there are interesting ways in which diplomats can think about how you can shape interactions using culture or using culture as a vehicle. Personally I am not conscious of any kind of conscious politicisation to particular ends happening in the UK at the moment.
(MR:) I think we are still far, far away from a political influence, and I don’t want to paint it in rose colours. It’s just true. I think I learnt it from you when you said ‘what happens in the world happens in the museum’, Glenn, and I think that’s the case, we are not terra incognita, we are not on an island somewhere in paradise away from reality, we are reality, and we have to face that reality and we have to talk about it. I think we have the character in our museums that combine the world in a certain way, I mean creativity is creativity everywhere, it’s not just British creativity or European creativity. To inspire creativity is a combining factor and we have to use that in a very positive way and bring people together.
(GA:) So let me ask you the opposite question then Martin, do you think that the V&A, or you as director of the V&A trying to put the institution in a leading position when it comes to cultural diplomacy, do you think that the V&A has a special role to play in this area?
(MR:) It’s part of our raison d'être. It happened before I came to the UK, but I remember an invitation to go to Tehran. The German ambassador called me and said please come, you are the only one who can come right now, because there’s definitely no politicians, and it’s difficult for CEOs to come, if there is someone coming then it has to be culture. I never forgot that, this is my job, and really in a very serious way and you have to take that role and you have to accept it, but it doesn’t mean it’s the major headline of a museum. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the only strand, it’s one of the strengths we have, but just one.
(GA:) So perhaps we could finish by talking about what might happen in the future. We talked about how the museum preserves a record of cultural diplomacy from the past, if you think about Chinese porcelain being sent to Europe maybe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example. What about looking ahead, Kirsten, do you think that museums will become more important? As places where cultural diplomacy happens? Or do you think that economic and political constraints will arise that prevents us from doing our work in this area as effectively as we do now?
(KB:) Big question. People who know a little bit about cultural diplomacy often think of it as using cultural objects to explain heritage or to explain where we come from. I think there is a really interesting opportunity for the V&A to really help position itself, because it’s about what the future looks like as much as what the past looks like. Let me explain that. It’s something about where ideas come from. There’s a perception that ideas come from eureka moments, that there’s some guy in a bath and suddenly some idea pops into his head, but ideas actually come from a process of recombination, recasting, remixing, interactions. So the collections that the V&A currently has, the exhibitions, the processes of design which it’s exhibiting are actually part and parcel of what the future looks like. There is a very important collection of remixing ideas from around the world and actually showing us what the future will look like in this globalised scenario that we are looking at.
(GA:) You don’t think that as a set of possibilities or potentials as being endangered? You see it as growing and growing?
(KB:) I see it as growing yes. There’s responsibilities on all sides, there is the responsibility of the government to ensure that we continue to invest in our cultural excellence, we invest a lot less in culture, even I as a relative outsider to the cultural world knows that we under invest compared to a lot of other countries. But there is also responsibility on the side of museums to really invest in understanding how new technologies new platforms can allow them to reach new audiences, and to think in entirely new ways about communicating these amazing ideas which are held within their walls and systems and archives.
(GA:) Martin, can I give you the last word and ask you to speak perhaps quite personally about this. When you look at the future of the V&A in particular or museums in general and this question of culture around the world, what are your hopes and fears?
(MR:) How much time do we have? Some very brief remarks, the first one is that twenty years after re-unification and political changes we need new strategies and those new strategies are long term, we need different relationships to museums and research institutions in China and all over the world. In that time of amazing communication tools that we have right now we don’t need this kind of exhibitions that we created twenty years ago when we send a Rapheal to Beijing for two weeks, I mean it’s not true, we didn’t, it’s just an example, it does happen quite often. Putin came one day and asked us to send the Raphael to Moscow, so it was difficult to say no. That’s over that’s history, that’s really the past. We need different methods, and I am not sure if we have found the right methods right now. That is one of the reasons the V&A works in a museum close to Hong Kong in Shenzhen, a design museum together with an initiative from Shenzhen. That long term strategy I think is something for the future, but don’t ask me please what I mean in detail because I think that’s something that has to be developed right now.
(GA:) But the broad principle there is that we collaborate with institutions from abroad rather than just sending our culture to them.
(MR:) I think we have to forget completely the national background. It has nothing to do with a national approach any longer, it’s about knowledge, it’s about sharing knowledge, it’s about platforms that we use together and we work together for different new topics, but if you ask me what are those new topics then I have a problem. But I know that we need a different way to do it. It’s a miracle with the future because we think the future is better but only because we know the past, and we always pick the positive things in the past and think they will happen in the future. Kirsten, what you said I think that’s right, I think it’s a re-combination, it’s like a collage that we put together and a museum has that different patterns of the past that we can re-arrange for a scenario for the future. I think the V&A is exactly made for that.
(GA:) Ok, thank you both very much for that amazing journey through a very complex but obviously extremely important topic - how museums work as lets not say instruments but as platforms or spaces for cultural diplomacy. I hope you have enjoyed listening to this episode, this is the final episode of the first season of the V&A podcast. I will be leaving the V&A myself…
(MR:) It is too sad
(GA:) (laughs) To take up the Directorship of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York but it has been a great pleasure to be with you and host this podcast and I think this has been a fantastic way to end. So thank you very much to Martin Roth, Director of the V&A, and Kirsten Bound from NESTA, and we hope that you will tune in for another episode of the next season of the V&A podcast, bringing you behind the scenes of the Victoria and Albert Museum the world’s greatest museum of art and design.
Listen to the V&A Podcast on iTunes U.The 'sting' heard at the beginning of each episode of the V&A Podcast was created by sound artist Jason Singh: www.jasonsinghmusic.com