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What is Culture For?

May 13, 2015

As austerity continues to strike public services in the UK, some may say why should the state fund museums, or any cultural institutions for that matter?  This argument has been raging in its current form ever since the recession began in 08. Theresa May’s announcement to ban extremist groups and behaviour got me thinking.  The latest measures to combat domestic extremism also stressed the importance of the state’s role to promote British values.  When pushed what these were, the Home Secretary pointed to a respect for the rule of law and tolerance.  However these can hardly be considered exclusively British values, most of Europe, North America and the Old Commonwealth share these broad sentiments.

But what are British values, and how do you define them? Not easy, especially if you are a government minister with a 5 minute slot on the radio. Perhaps a role for museums?  Although I would be the last to encourage the heritage sector to become a propaganda tool for the state, museums can, and do, explore our community, culture and even our values.  One example is the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.  It charts our changing values, warts and all.  200 years ago is was acceptable to defend and profit from slavery.  The museum shows how anti slavery campaigners helped abolish this trade in human misery.

Ignatius Sancho an eighteenth century Black Briton

Ignatius Sancho, writer, slave, abolitionist & the first known Black Briton to have the vote

There are lots of other reasons why museums are important, education, tourism, health and economic regeneration to name but a few, but perhaps museums can help remind us what makes us British.

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