Asking the questions Google can’t answer

September 2016

The third biennial International Culture Summit brought cultural representatives from across the world to Edinburgh. Alistair MacDonald was there for the British Council and reports on the highlights – including the UK Government’s promise to ratify the Hague Convention on cultural protection and some interesting perspectives on why culture matters.

Following the success of the 2012 and 2014 gatherings, the Scottish Parliament has again played host to the Edinburgh International Culture Summit. From 24-26 August 2016, Edinburgh hosted representatives from 42 countries including 22 Ministerial delegations with representatives from places as different as Argentina, Bangladesh, China, Iraq, Lesotho, New Zealand and Tunisia. Ministers, leaders from the cultural sector, academics and policy makers discussed the role of culture in building resilient communities, with sessions focussed on cultural protection, heritage-led regeneration, the economic value of culture and how to increase participation. Ministers from Korea, Nigeria and South Africa all talked about the priority their governments are placing on fostering the creative industries to diversify and sustainably grow their economies – they recognise the value of putting culture at the heart of their economic strategies. This year for the first time a battalion of brilliant young activists and practitioners joined the Summit bringing fresh ideas, energy and challenge to the debates on the floor of the Debating Chamber and to the round table sessions in the Committee Rooms of the Parliament.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director-General Antiquities and Museums in Syria, highlighted the global tragedy of the wilful destruction of the heritage of the peoples of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali and other countries afflicted by war. The role of skills and technology in cultural protection, and the need for robust international action against the profiteering of looters was debated by delegates. To applause across the Debating Chamber Matthew Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, responded by confirming that the UK government would very shortly be ratifying the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict .

Outfits like Daesh fear and despise the symbols of a world that existed before them, persists despite them and will endure long after their own murderous crusade is consigned to the room 101 of history

While the focus was on the physical damage to the historic environment and losses to barbarism and looting, delegates also recognised how the deliberate destruction of heritage was very much an assault on cultural identity. Delegates recognised that outfits like Daesh fear and despise the symbols of a world that existed before them, persists despite them and will endure long after their own murderous crusade is consigned to the room 101 of history.

The delegates to the Summit all agreed on the critical role culture plays in economic regeneration and place shaping, how the bold and visionary can turn around the fortunes of communities struggling with decline in traditional industries, but also how development that is sympathetic to the historic environment and engages the local community has the best chance of delivering lasting improvements to the economy, social cohesion and wellbeing. Examples of successful regeneration projects included the transformation of Dundee’s Waterfront into an international centre for the arts and design.

The Summit saw considerable discussion of how we measure the value of culture, with scepticism from some arts practitioners and members of the youth delegation who challenged the political imperative to monetise value. However, Ministers candidly countered that they must make account to taxpayers for allocating scarce resources on culture over health, education and other public spending priorities and need to be able to demonstrate to the exchequer the contribution that investment in culture pays off. 

Google is opening up historic sites and museum collections to a global audience through digitisation and (in ‘Google Cardboard’) a tech revolution born of a bit of origami after late night pizza

Delegates also heard how Google is opening up historic sites and museum collections to a global audience through digitisation and (in ‘Google Cardboard’) a tech revolution born of a bit of origami after late night pizza. In the closing session of the Summit one delegate returned to Google’s digital revolution but went on to pose a challenge that all artists, ministers, optimists, dreamers and above all young people must rise to – ask the questions Google can’t answer. This is the beauty of the Summit, by bringing people together to share their knowledge and experience, challenges and aspirations, it inspires, cajoles and confronts practitioners and policy makers to be ambitious, to find the answers to the difficult questions and to come together for the common good. 

 

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council