We must use every cultural asset at our disposal post-Brexit
From the British Museum to the V&A, we need to be getting our ‘towels on the beach’ before anyone else using the vast repository of British culture and cultural institutions, writes Tim Loughton
The British Museum is unique and special in so many ways. It was the world’s first national public museum, established by an Act of Parliament in 1753. It holds over 8 million works of enormous variety, 2200 of which were lent to 81 venues outside of the UK last year, while touring exhibitions in China, Hong Kong and India drew millions. Indeed, more people saw British Museum treasures outside London than at the museum itself, even though with 5.9m visitors it is the UK’s top visitor attraction.
The museum’s collections are held in trust for the nation by an independent board of trustees. Fortunately, they are well able to resist the disingenuous perennial opportunism of certain politicians who would treat international treasures such as the Elgin Marbles as political baubles to be traded away in the interests of supposedly promoting greater international understanding. Hence recent disingenuous attempts by the governing Syriza party in Greece to make handing over the Marbles a condition of a Brexit deal were as doomed to fail as Spain trying to revisit old military scores over Gibraltar.
So, the British Museum is in a strong position to resist whatever Brexit may throw at it, whatever the turnout for the £12m in funds recycled from the UK taxpayer received from the EU. Brexit is placing a greater importance on the global influence that the UK has, but too often fails to exercise fully, in the whole area of cultural diplomacy epitomised by such institutions.
Wherever you go in the world, the British Museum has been there first. Just about every government, every civil service, every national institution will have someone who has studied or been trained by the Museum or participated in one of its programmes. Those sorts of connections can open the doors subtly to British trade delegations and ministers and help fly the flag for UK PLC.
Back in 2005, when Iran’s relations with the West were even cooler than now, the British Museum was ahead of the curve as its Persian exhibition brought politicians and artefacts from Tehran and achieved dialogue that had eluded governments. This led to the historic loan to Tehran of the priceless 6th BC Cyrus Cylinder in 2010, which again did much to promote greater dialogue between our countries.
When the Bayeux Tapestry leaves France in 2022 for the first time in 950 years and hopefully comes to the British Museum, it will be a symbol of the power of culture to bring peoples together, despite the heated divisions of Brexit.
The government is funding the BM to run the excellent Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme where archaeologists are being brought over from Iraq to train at the British Museum in restoration techniques to help rebuild sites like Nineveh ransacked by Daesh. Earlier this month, I was in Jerash in Jordan to see a brilliant British Council scheme where a stonemason from Barnsley is training Syrian refugees and unemployed Jordanians to help conserve their own historic sites. The MoD is recruiting our own ‘Monuments Men’ under Lt Colonel Tim Purbrick in the Cultural Property Protection division to go to conflict zones to help protect and retrieve priceless sites and artefacts. We are world leaders in schemes like this yet too often they are understated.
The British Museum is a truly world museum where the whole panoply of civilization can be seen and studied in context. And it has a global reach that we could and should take advantage of more. Earlier this year, I visited the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi. Opened last year, it is an iconic building housing a rather random collection of poorly labelled artefacts dominated by the huge painting of Napoleon on horseback giving it a distinctly French hue. Not only did the French receive a whopping $1.3bn for the opportunity, but they are flying the flag for France PLC in a lucrative part of the world.
We need to be getting our ‘towels on the beach’ before the French, Germans and anyone else using the vast repository of British culture and cultural institutions. From the British Museum, V&A, Tate and other museums to our world-leading educational establishments and creative industries the government is missing a trick and post-Brexit we need more than ever to be using every cultural asset at our disposal.
Tim Loughton is Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, and chair of the British Museum APPG