Tag Archives: cultural policy

On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

When it comes to the international trade in antiquities, the UK has for centuries enjoyed the status of net beneficiary. This happy fact is evident not only amid the airy echoing courts and endless lesser galleries of the British Museum, various far-flung corners of the V&A, the renovated treasure-houses of the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam, dozens of excellent regional and local collections, but equally so from the riches which private collectors and their trustees have chosen to share with the viewing public — these last ranging from a few marvellous cameos in the Royal Collection to the magnificent holdings of some of our more acquisitive aristocratic families, or, as far as that goes, intellectually stimulating displays at Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sigmund Freud’s house in Hampstead — as well as what’s there to be seen, all the year round, in the salerooms of our larger and smaller auction houses and in the galleries of commercial dealers in antiquities.

Britain is, in short, notably well-stocked with the material residue of other countries’ ancient civilisations. Other countries are, in contrast, rather less preoccupied with the material residue of Britain’s ancient civilisations. When it comes to the past, we import more than we export. Or to put it another way, without a lively and long-established progression of antiquities out of their far-flung places of origin and into Britain, some of our greatest museums, galleries, stately homes and smaller collections would be looking rather empty, at least from the point of view of anyone who cares about ancient history.

Should we regret this? Not entirely. As the previous examples ought to show, Britain’s vast holdings of other people’s cultural legacies stems as much from the stuff of cross-cultural curiosity, profound and productive scholarly engagement, aesthetic receptiveness, political stability and  peaceful exchange as it does from military or economic imperialism, exploitation or outright theft. Rather like our tail-wagging mongrel of a language, our ability to absorb all those various successive lapping waves of inward migration, our default tendency towards tolerance cross-cut with a strand of fairly gentle irony, Britain’s acquisitive regard for other countries’ ancient history says the sorts of things about our culture that, at least when couched in positive terms, most of us are only too anxious to believe.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t stop and think carefully about where antiquities purchased today come from, how they came to be there, or the sort of incentives produced by their sale — or indeed, about whether repatriating those antiquities might now suit our moods and purposes better than retaining them. But it does suggest, surely, that we’re not in much of a position to complain when our own antiquities end up finding new homes abroad.

All that being the case, when, why should we strive to ‘save’ — i.e. to retain within the UK, in a public collection — that article of Roman cavalry parade armour now known as the Crosby Garrett helmet, due to be auctioned at Christie’s South Kensington on 7 October? Continue reading

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Filed under archaeology, culture, history, war & peace

The writing’s on the wall: some notes towards a Conservative arts policy

Who’d be a proper, MSM-grade journalist, forever digging through the muck for a tiny shred of straw around which to shape something that might plausibly resemble an actual, payment-worthy brick?

As the party of enterprise, at any rate, Conservatives really ought to applaud the efforts of the Sun hack who managed to extract from a speech by Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport Jeremy Hunt MP a story entirely worthy of being set alongside, last time I looked, articles discussing people having a shower in the Big Brother House, the Army’s discovery of UFOs flitting high above Shropshire, and the vexed issue of whether tennis shorts are ‘sexy’ (this latter complete with expository photos, to aid the uncommitted in their deliberations).

Admittedly, in this company the Hunt story suffers marginally from lack of colour. Titled Tory: Graffiti is so passionate (but Hunt enthusiasts needn’t worry, the usual ‘top Tory’ formula kicks in very soon thereafter), the point of the article — file under ‘Tory Gaffe’ — is to flag up an entirely unremarkable reference to the ‘thought provoking’ nature of at least some graffiti. The reference, in turn, was made in the course of Mr Hunt’s recent speech at the invitation of what ConHome described (only slightly breathless in its wishful boosterism) as ‘Peter Whittle’s increasing influential New Culture Forum‘, on the subject of Conservative cultural policy.

It’s a rich, if in some ways invariably depressing topic. Still, let’s get graffiti out of the way first. Continue reading


Filed under art, politics, Tory things

Who’s out of tune? Ms Hodge versus the Proms

In some ways it’s a pity that culture minister Margaret Hodge’s recent speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research has already been buried under the avalanche of denunciation that her comments regarding the Proms so generously invited, as there were other aspects of it which, while no less wrong-headed and dispiriting, might have at least generated a marginally more amusing script for subsequent public discussion.

For instance, does Ms Hodge genuinely believe, as she claims in her speech, that next year marks the ‘anniversary’ of Henry VIII’s accession? And would she please explain what she means when she says that one of the key achievements of this ‘well known figure in our history’ lay in — and I’m not making this up, it’s really in the text — ‘separating state and religion’? And does she ever worry that as aspirations for ‘our sectors’ go, ’embodying common belongings’ might be a less than inspiring battle-cry? And finally, does she actually agree with the somewhat bizarre little maxim, certainly included by someone amongst her remarks, that ‘traditions are only experiments that once worked’?

Well, the discovery of ‘a shared sense of common cultural identity’ (‘shared’ and ‘common’, no less) might seem a more galvanising proposition were government ministers to display a stronger grasp of language, history and tradition, almost as if these cornerstones of nationhood held any significance for them.

Instead, however, we are left with Ms Hodge’s comments regarding the Proms and the fuss that these have generated. Continue reading


Filed under culture, politics