Britain’s culture and heritage was discussed by distinguished arts figures and Sussex academics last Thursday in London.
The debate, ‘Preserving our material and cultural legacy’, took place on 19 January as part of the University of Sussex’s 50th Anniversary ‘Conversation’ series of talks.
The venue was the Royal Institution of Great Britain in Westminster.
The debate was recorded on camera by a team of Sussex undergraduates, and anyone was welcome to be a member of the audience.
A twitter feed could be used to post questions and follow the debate alongside the live streamed recording, which was later produced by the students and placed online.
One of the major topics addressed was the purpose of the arts in national culture.
Speaker Ekow Eshun, former Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, said: “Pretty much every nation is always in crisis… The arts are good at embracing dissonance and acknowledging the awkwardness of our national culture.
“All true art is controversial and raises hackles.”
A Performance Technologies Professsor from Sussex, Sally-Jane Norman, talked about the underlying tensions to do with identity at national and local levels and suggested that arts can help reduce the levels of discord.
Art’s relation to government and the economy was also discussed at length.
Eshun celebrated the government’s arm’s-length approach to the council’s funding of arts as he asserted that it ensures that artists are under no obligation to act politely or gratefully towards the government.
He said it enables artists to show “a healthy disrespect for authority”.
Sussex English Professor Peter Boxall agreed, reflecting on how state intervention in heritage and culture was sometimes problematic.
Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust, commended the modern-day “mixed economy” for enabling “a democratization of heritage and the validation of non-expert views”.
One member of the audience asked about possible restitution, in which artifacts which had previously been taken from other countries and displayed in British museums would be restored to their place of origin.
Sir Neil Cossons, Chairman of the Royal College of Art, replied that the: “Parthenon sculptures should stay in the British Museum” as the collection there aims to reflect and encapsulate as wide a range of global cultures as possible.
The question of reconciling tensions over preservation of artifacts also emerged, as well as the social and political controversy surrounding phrases such as “the national heritage” and “our culture”.
Mr Eshun referenced his own Ghanaian background, saying: “I deliberately use the phrase ‘our culture’ to stake a claim to where I want to live, against those who want to exclude me.
“There’s nothing passive about the phrase – it’s a statement of intent.”
The debate was chaired by Sir Vernon Ellis, Chair of the British Council and Chairman of English National Opera, who concluded that heritage and culture was an “important issue” that could be “discussed for many hours longer”.