Projecting the Culture of Wales to the World

Michael Houlihan
National Museum Wales – Amgueddfa Cymru
14 July 2010

After seven years in this role, Michael Houlihan is leaving to take up his new post as Chief Executive of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. His successor is David Anderson, Director of Learning and Interpretation at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

For thousands of years, the story of culture in Wales has been about preservation and protection in the face of many overt and insidious threats; mostly originating in the east! The threats have been military, religious, political, linguistic, social and economic. But, over time, it’s worked; a distinctive culture has survived thanks to geography, resistance, persistence and community. The dilemma now facing Wales is whether there is sufficient bravery and leadership to come out from behind the defences and to project this special and different culture of Wales to the world.

For over seven years I have had the privilege to observe culture in Wales from what one might describe, in military terms, as one of its cultural stützpunkt, or strongpoints; namely, Amgueddfa Cymru, the national museum of Wales. So this evening I would like to don the mantle of cultural anthropologist to present some specific and personal observations on culture in Wales, particularly around the leadership, governance, and administration of its institutional manifestations, and what we apparatchiks like to call the branding of Wales. I believe that these are issues that Wales should take seriously, structural deficit or no structural deficit, if it wants the culture of Wales to survive, thrive and be recognised around the world. Importantly, there needs to be a more overt recognition, particularly in a time of financial pressure, that what sets Wales apart from, say, Surrey is its culture; that the reason we have an Assembly is because of that unique culture; and that, effectively, culture is Wales and Wales is culture. This should have been a project for the good times; in the bad, it becomes essential.

The solution, as in any crisis, is about assertiveness and leadership; about a clear sense of and adherence to underpinning values; confidence to adopt new administrative solutions; and a step change in mindset.

So what’s so special about culture in Wales? It is a paradox of the modern world that the spread of economic and technological globalisation has been matched, step for step, by the fragmentation of the larger, political nation state. This has been displaced by the concept of the socio-cultural ‘nation’, centred as this is on the free expression of local or ethnic identity, whether perceived or real. In these societies, and Wales is a classic example, culture is the connective fibre that gives community life. Culture interprets, explains and memorises, across generations, the kinships, common origins, collective myths and shared memories that are essential to a vigorous community. It commemorates the individuals and the moments that have shaped our past. It communicates the beliefs, values and habits that will define the future.

Clifford Geertz defined culture as the ‘stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’ and, by extension for museums, that we tell others. Yes, culture is about the exceptional, but even more importantly it is about the ordinary. After all, culture is a natural part of our daily lives – our language, our stories, our food, our reading, our games and pastimes, our beliefs, our gathering together and our relationship with our environment. It also elevates our lives through literature, music, our songs, our art, theatre and architecture. It is all around us, the texture of our living, the place where past and present meet.

The crucial idea here, embedded in the anthropology-speak, is that culture, shifting and evolving as it does, is of the people, of the nation and of Wales. As I will try to show, the “of” word is frequently ignored, misunderstood or just regarded as somehow embarrassing when a homogenised expression of Wales’s culture needs to be forced into the service of some slick and enticing brand.

The national museum itself, along with the National Library and the University is an interesting example of “of Wales”. The inception of these institutions together before the First World War, and their construction and realisation in the financially challenging period after the War, reflect a period of confidence and assertiveness in Welsh identity. Internationally, the history of the creation of national museums during the 19th and 20th Centuries has been inconsistent both between and within nation states. However, the establishment of the National Museum of Wales generated a new definition of a national museum, which ignored what one might describe as the English definition. According to this latter prescription, a national museum is located, for preference, in London, although today it is recognised that some, such as Liverpool Museums, may exist beyond Maida Vale or even that the London nationals themselves may have further-flung satellites. All are funded by the nation and house great collections of international quality. Their remit is to show the world to Britain; they are museums for the nation.

Then, there is the Welsh definition: the museum of the nation firmly rooted in issues of national identity, national culture and national ownership, articulated in the ways that the Museum collects, the exhibitions it mounts and the regional communities that it serves. This quasi-political, cultural and social definition of a national museum now sits firmly alongside those nationals, all based in England, that define themselves purely by the quality, standing and international outlook of their collections and scholarship. The Welsh equivalent, a National Museum of England, does not exist and may be incapable of existing; the British Museum is clearly for the nation but not entirely of the nation. And Tate Britain is an interesting creative tension with its other sites.

In Wales, there is no ambiguity or intellectual ambivalence. Here the foundation of a National Museum, a hundred years ago, was an unashamed, intellectual underpinning and articulation of a nation’s cultural identity and aspirations, reflected in what it collected and the stories it told. Similarly, the radical roots of St Fagans, set up in the years immediately following the Second World War, reflected a compelling and urgent vision to preserve the distinctiveness of Welsh language, culture, folklore, stories and the memory of everyday life.

This leads me to argue that successful cultural institutions in Wales seek, principally, to reflect the culture of Wales. By and large, they have been successful in achieving this for Wales. Where they have been less successful is in making that culture available for the world.

The vacuum that lies between “of Wales” and “for the world” has been filled by some strange concoctions. These could be characterised as the outputs from the “Land of Myth and Legend” School of Cultural History and branding. Now, I need to come clean here: I loathe the term branding, but, like hi-vis clothing, I am powerless to argue against the logic for it. Obviously, it is about articulating an image of Wales that will make it attractive to others in terms of tourism or inward investment; presenting Wales to the World. People from outside Wales will clearly be motivated by a variety of reasons for coming here. This can range from the price and availability of alcohol in Cardiff to international quality performances at the Wales Millennium Centre in the same city.

However, this image rarely celebrates, and sometimes appears embarrassed about, the cultural distinctiveness of Wales. For example, the landscape that has shaped Wales’s distinctive culture is more safely marketed as a beautiful attraction offering unsafe opportunities to break your neck at a variety of dangerous sports. A strategy, incidentally, that seems to place Wales in competition and sometimes at a disadvantage with any number of similar locations in the UK or Europe. Again, this can also lead to contextualising Wales in relation to its distance and travelling time from London. While this might all seem churlish, I certainly recognise that it is important, economically and in broader cultural terms, to spotlight the existence of venues or facilities that can secure and stage international events such as opera, rallying and Ryder Cup Golf, which all have wide appeal. Sadly, however, cultural tourism, in its broadest sense, has singularly failed to turn up for Wales, in contrast to, say, Ireland or Catalonia.

So why is this? Let’s take the case of history and its presentation in Wales. In Ireland, history is big and very much part of the brand. In part, this has been down to the Irish school curriculum, which presents a very clear and passionate picture of Irish history. This is in contrast to Wales where, despite the valuable curricula reforms of the last decade, the history of Wales is an option and frequently it continues to be an English perspective or context that is articulated in Welsh schools. Ireland has been particularly successful in conveying a continuous story of resistance, blood, martyrdom and the sword as a determinant of politics. This is in part due to its geographical remoteness from the UK compared to Wales’s porous borders, which in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries, drew it, almost seamlessly, into the industrial and economic story of the British Empire. You have to look elsewhere for the hidden and passionate history of Wales and the transmission of cultural memory. This is more likely to be found in the Welsh language, with its shared stories of memories, events and people contributing to preserving a sharp sense of identity, but one which is not effectively articulated in the English language.

As a result, those with some responsibility for telling the history of Wales, in the fields of education, heritage and tourism do so in ways that reflect the broad sweep of European and English history rather than the story of daily cultural and social interchange in Wales – a story that, when taken in the round, is truly distinctive. It is made distinctive, in part, by the Welsh language and its expression in literature, poetry, folklore and music; but also by the conjunction of other non-linguistic cultural manifestations such as dissent, self-improvement and a relationship with the land built around sustainability, as well as exploitation. Certainly, there are many inspiring lessons to be learned here and models to be considered for our own future.

Sadly though, at times we only seem capable of generating a fiction, the Land of Myth and Legend. Even the originally radical St Fagans has become a cultural memory in its own right; its position as Wales’s number one tourist attraction can be perceived as a barrier to intellectual change and challenge, as it presents a picture of a Wales that never existed and its original values and richness of purpose are now confined behind the public areas in the archives, collections and accumulated folk stories that are rarely seen but, nevertheless, carefully ordered and preserved. Is St Fagans a microcosm of Wales itself, marketing a relatively easily understood, almost Holywood image of a culture that never really existed, while the real grain and fibre of that culture is preserved and stored, museum-like, out of sight? I know that my successor, David Anderson, is relishing the challenge of unlocking this richness through the development of the site over the next few years.

Let me share with you an example of the way of thinking just described. Last year, Wales was one of the participating nations at the Smithsonian Museum’s Folklife Festival in Washington. An annual bash organized by the Smithsonian in July on the Mall in front of the Capitol Building. it attracts about a million visitors. Its purpose is to illustrate the diversity of folk life forms across the world. I attended many high-level meetings here in Wales at which the project was discussed; unfortunately, some of those attending just didn’t get it. The Smithsonian itself was clear, contractually and intellectually, that what it wanted was folk life in the shape of music, story-telling, craft skills, art, poetry, dance and the other characteristic outputs that define a culture. Sitting in those meetings, I frequently felt that presenting an authentic picture of Welsh folk life was at odds with the “brand” of a modern, technologically switched-on Wales that people would want to visit or companies invest in. The basic point was being missed; the singular, sometimes unsophisticated, sometimes contemporary but always authentic expression of a small nation’s culture can be far more attractive and engaging to the outsider than the marketing messages that make it look indistinguishable from any other western, industrialised complex.

So how does Wales go about taking the precious culture that it has preserved and project it as part of its future survival strategy? In corporate terms, Wales needs a vision for culture and the leadership of this process can only come from government. As already noted, the Assembly is an expression of Wales’s culture. Without a vibrant, confident and authentic culture there would be no need for an Assembly. The Assembly is now crucially placed to engage with culture, to articulate a vision for culture and the part it is expecting culture to play in the bad times ahead. Otherwise, culture will be seen simply and simplistically as yet another expenditure barrier to closing the fiscal gap.

It is clearly good news that Wales has a Minister for Heritage; and the current Minister has a deep, personal understanding of the culture of Wales. But he also needs the support of the whole of government to express and communicate to the public a deeper understanding of the role of culture in our society. This is not about money; it is simply about recognising the very core of what makes Wales unique and exploring how it will not only support Wales but also be a driving force for progress.

At a practical level there are also some searching questions that government will need to address in relation to the governance and administration of culture and the arts; or what has become not arts administration but the art of administration.

In respect of governance, I would argue that there needs to be a new compact between government and its cultural institutions. The future may inevitably be about smaller and less government and more institutional independence expressed through the Charity governance model. Having worked with the Department for Culture Media and Sport in England and the Department of Heritage in Northern Ireland, I can state that the relationship in Wales between funder and funded is far closer and more carefully scrutinised. I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing; in fact it can be advantageous.

I also have to say that working with CyMAL has been a refreshing revelation as to how light and truly supportive the reins of departmental sponsorship can be when common sense is allowed to prevail. However, I do question whether the proximity of the relationship with government is entirely healthy and, more importantly, sustainable. The close financial links between national cultural institutions and government, as their principal funder, has led to a relationship of control based on a number of factors. These have been increased accountability, compliance and measurement; growing state influence over governance; and, possibly, an expectation on the part of government that ongoing financial sustenance should reflect a more overt commitment on the part of institutions to the support of government agendas and policies that could best be described as peripheral to their core purpose.

Government involvement is often expressed through the paradox of the declared arm’s length principle and the reality of an administrative “Half Nelson”, as it seeks to take ownership of financial and managerial systems through the triple mechanisms of accountability, compliance and performance measurement. To cope with these demands, public bodies have built up elaborate hierarchies, management structures and internal systems of scrutiny. Amgueddfa Cymru spent almost £600,000 last year on such control systems. In this environment, decision-making becomes slower and more measured, and financial procedures highly complex. In particular, risk-taking is not valued. While this is understandable, in the context of financial activity, it can also become a malaise that pervades and constrains governance in relation to intellectual and programming agendas. This can be to a point where timidity is more acceptable than the risk of upsetting the civil service.

Accountability, compliance and performance measurement is one of the hidden growth industries of Wales and eleswhere, a system founded on the twin pillars of lack of trust and fear. And, in reality, many of the existing low level controls and measures do not provide any material comfort for government and do much to thwart efficiency and income generation. Government needs to ask itself whether the current complex structure of restrictive and overlapping regulation, developed in an ad hoc fashion over the years, can now be afforded.

The knock-on effect of all this is that governance bodies, such as boards of trustees, can find themselves obsessed with the scrutiny of managerial detail, sometimes displacing the roles of cultural leadership, strategic direction and advocacy. It could be argued that this is an unavoidable consequence when one considers the personal liabilities that now accrue to being a trustee. However, it is a development that can generate tensions between policy-framing bodies and executives in organizations. I would also suggest that it can also skew recruitment to boards, placing a higher premium on managerial proficiency and experience than on influencing and networking skills.

The key to successful reform of governance is about light touch. To maintain the overarching structure, but to do so in a way that liberates institutions to manage their own business, to generate more income and operate as efficiently as possible, yet ensuring adequate oversight by government for the expenditure of the public’s money. Greater freedoms would include independence to set the pay of staff; a simpler financial memorandum (as opposed to the current 32-page document that seeks to regulate every aspect of this museum’s activity); compliance with central government policy initiatives should be voluntary, as many are not conceived with the cultural operating model in mind and tend therefore to be counterproductive.

It will be essential that boards have the right mix of skills and have high-quality trustees. But do over half of those appointments really need to be made by ministers? Finally, I would also argue that in the current environment, boards should adopt the business company model and invite executive directors to sit as members in equal recognition of the specific skill sets they bring and to generate a sense of being in this together, rather than “them and us”, which can occasionally characterise the monitoring type of relationship between any board and executive.

Clearly, over the next ten years, there will be a powerful driver to reduce operating costs. It is my view that, for Wales, this will be an opportunity to completely rethink and to streamline the way in which the government’s cultural portfolio is run. The model currently used is in many ways a hybrid of the cultural infrastructure that operates in England, which has, undoubtedly, created silos of overlapping responsibilities and duplication of operational services. It is just not efficient; more importantly, it isn’t effective.

The parcelling up of culture and the administrative protection of some operational parts within government is increasingly proving a hindrance to projecting a coherent, cultural brand. And, though there are a number of effective partnerships in place, every institution inevitably tends to look, principally, after itself and its own interests. If this persists, we will be, increasingly, fighting one another to survive.

Might there be more effective ways to deliver culture in Wales without compromising on quality? One of Wales’s greatest strengths is that it is a small country. Should we not, therefore, find ways to work that are bespoke to the best interests of the nation and its people? Key to this will be greater integration of operational services between organizations, amalgamations, new partnerships between cultural players and greater application of new technology to projecting and managing culture.

For starters, we could look at who does what in terms of culture in Wales and identify areas where operational services and delivery could be shared. Does every organization need to be spending so much time – and money – on duplicating the same operational services, or is there a way to share financial, IT, marketing, education, commercial and HR services?

Let’s also think what until now has been the unthinkable – do we need so many cultural organizations in Wales? Is there scope to amalgamate some bodies, even separating some away from government? From my experience in Northern Ireland, I know that amalgamations can be an expensive and protracted business, with savings only crystallising years down the line. However, it is not just about cost savings, in the Wales context it is also about the effectiveness of cultural provision. Taking the long term, post-deficit view, could the savings that would eventually emerge be used, in better times, to deliver more in terms of cultural experiences and programmes to the people of Wales and its visitors?

Is it possible for the cultural players themselves to come together not only in partnership but also as consortia to provide leadership, to procure joint services, to project the culture of Wales to the World and to show the World to Wales?

Finally, new technology will be critical. In a world of active networks, consortia and matrix relationships, it will enable innovative and looser approaches to the structuring and administration of culture. Within my own organization, the operation and management of multiple and disparate venues has been achieved, thanks to information technology, without duplicate batteries of bureaucrats hard-wired to a hierarchical centre. Perhaps more dramatic will be the use of new media to support the projection of culture. For example, early glimpses of the online People’s Collection project, lead by CyMAL, shows that it has powerfully re-engaged with local stories, local histories and local memories in a way that reflects the original ideals behind the creation of St Fagans. The difference is that St Fagans was of Wales for Wales; the People’s Collection will certainly be of Wales, but also for Wales and the World.

In conclusion, I have not tried to answer all the questions that I have posed, but have attempted, in a very personal reflection, to accent areas of tremendous strength in Wales. At the core of this strength is the culture of Wales. I would urge those involved in its delivery to engage in a wider debate as to how we can project it better; for government and the Assembly to provide leadership, context and a vision; and for us all to respect those past generations that did so much to protect the authentic culture of Wales and in doing so left a legacy that we can use to create a more fulfilled future.

It is an exciting prospect!

Michael Houlihan is the departing Director General of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy