As the cultural centre of gravity shifts to Edinburgh for the summer, we publish the final report from the last Edinburgh International Culture Summit, 'Culture: Building Resilient Communities'.
The report reflects discussions that took place in the Debating Chamber and Committee Rooms of the Scottish Parliament. The theme of the Summit was the role of culture in communities and the discussions focussed on three topics - culture and heritage, culture and economics and culture and participation.
Culture and Heritage
Around the world our cultural heritage is at risk. For Daesh and other extremist ideologues the deliberate, systematic destruction of cultural heritage is an avowed objective of war. The threat is very political and very real, and it propels what some may consider sedate, academic activities, such as museum curation, into a new and dangerous frontline, turning work in these fields into a political fight for freedom and identity. At the Summit we learned about the terrible damage caused by the bombardment of Aleppo and the systematic destruction of Palmyra, but also the impact of the illicit trade in antiquities and other threats to what is our shared universal heritage. We heard from communities that are under pressure from tourism, of sites and places that are endangered by their very popularity with international visitors. We mourned the tragedy of Syria and debated the challenges facing Venice and Dubrovnik from the cruise liners sailing the Adriatic. We sympathised but also worked together to explore solutions. We considered how to record and restore shattered ruins and what we might do to encourage tourists to explore places off the well-worn path to relieve the pressure on the most popular sites.
Systematic destruction of cultural heritage is an avowed objective of war. The threat is very political and very real, and it propels academic activities, such as museum curation, into a new and dangerous frontline, turning work in these fields into a political fight for freedom and identity.
We learned that culture and heritage can be a powerful driver of economic development. Culture-led regeneration is reviving the fortunes of cities around the world from Hobart to Hull. The report relates the experiences and lessons of transformational developments like the Dundee Waterfront and Cairo’s Al-Azhar Park, demonstrating that the sustainable development of a place both respects and harnesses the historic environment for economic and social benefits. Benefits that local communities – the custodians of place – can “buy into” to better understand both the intrinsic importance and economic potential of the sites in their care.
Culture and Economics
The Summit discussed the perennial issue of the F-word: funding, and how cultural institutions might diversify incomes through partnerships and entrepreneurship. The delegates also explored how government policy impacts the sector in numerous ways other than funding, e.g. through licensing laws, intellectual property standards and visa regulations.
Both advanced and developing economies are increasingly turning to film, cultural tourism, music, publishing and video gaming to grow and diversify. Culture needs to be taken seriously – the creative sector is worth billions to national exchequers. The report shares the lessons from the successes of ‘Nollywood ’ (the Nigerian film industry) and the potential for cultural festivals to lift local economies.
The consideration of the role of culture in the economy extended to discussion of the arts in education systems. The digital revolution is transforming our homes and workplaces. Increased automation and artificial intelligence are bringing dramatic change to the employment market, not just in manufacturing but across all sectors. Traditional roles are disappearing. The jobs of the future are in the knowledge and creative sectors. Against this backdrop, education systems need to adapt, to provide young people with the skills and confidence to innovate and challenge. Of course a focus on STEM subjects is important but there must be a place for creativity, critical thinking, scepticism, communication, collaboration, adaptability. These are skills needed by the modern workforce and they are exactly the skills that come through cultural participation, both in schools and the wider community.
Culture and Participation
It is no longer sufficient to just tell the public that the arts are important – they need to experience culture and participate in the discourse, to see how cultural institutions contribute to their communities. People need to develop a sense of entitlement, to feel legitimised and empowered to participate. The culture sector needs to work to overcome the barriers to participation, to address the belief of some that the arts are “not for the likes of me”. The sector has a responsibility but also an opportunity, to engage new audiences and support emerging talent, to give people a voice and to bring in the young, the old, women, the marginalised, the people on the fringes. To embrace innovation and take risks.
The Summit delegates learned how participation in programmes like Dance for Parkinson’s and Streetwise Opera are transforming people’s lives. The potential for culture to deliver better health and social care outcomes in communities needs to be better understood by service commissioners.
Culture needs to be recognised as part of the infrastructure on which society depends, as important as highways and the electricity supply
Culture needs to be recognised as part of the infrastructure on which society depends, as important as highways and the electricity supply. We need to better elucidate the many ways, both obvious and more subtle, in which culture contributes to the smooth and orderly functioning of our communities, to personal wellbeing and to social integration and economic progress. Culture is essential to the success and resilience of our communities.
The publication of the report is both a time of reflection but also for looking forward to the next Summit when the sector and culture ministers will return once again to the Scottish Parliament – to come together to debate the challenges facing our communities and tackle the sorts of questions Google can’t answer.
Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council