In Other Words

Who Is Culture’s Keeper?

ICOM News, Vol. 55, No. 1, 2002, Paris Political analysts aren’t the only critics looking closely at issues of globalization and trade. The fast pace of recent global exchange has also concerned cultural leaders around the world, as they ponder whether trade in culture is different from trade in goods and services. The International Council ...

ICOM News, Vol. 55, No. 1, 2002, Paris

Political analysts aren’t the only critics looking closely at issues of globalization and trade. The fast pace of recent global exchange has also concerned cultural leaders around the world, as they ponder whether trade in culture is different from trade in goods and services.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) tackled this contentious issue when it chose "Museums and Globalisation" as the theme for this year’s International Museum Day, celebrated annually for the last 24 years on May 18. This topic is also the focus of a recent issue of ICOM’s quarterly newsletter, ICOM News. Seventeen thousand members in 140 countries receive the newsletter of the 56-year-old Paris-based nongovernmental organization, which is dedicated to the development of museums and the preservation of cultural heritage.

The newsletter’s editorial on "Globalisation" praises the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) November 2001 decision to maintain the "cultural exception" in world trade. The original 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade contains a general exception "to protect national cultural treasures of artistic, historical, or archaeological value," but the French introduced the term "cultural exception" during the Uruguay Round negotiations in the 1990s to protect their film industry from liberalization. The doctrine — that culture generally is unlike merchandise and should be protected from commercialization and standardization — has no legal status, and the term does not exist in any agreement or treaty. Without a formal agreement, some cultural practitioners worry that the concept could be swept aside in the future.

In his essay "Culture and World Trade," Patrick Boylan, professor of heritage policy and management at City University, London, warns that "Since 1995 certain very powerful international commercial interests have been campaigning for the abolition of the ‘cultural exception’ …." Boylan is vague on who these interests are, but he recommends vigilance in monitoring future WTO negotiations to ensure that cultural heritage is protected. Behind his warning, however, lies the larger question of what types of culture should be preserved and who should make those decisions: The marketplace? Governments? Communities? Professional artists and curators?

In the new global environment, the question of curatorial control has become more complex. Traditionally, wealthy patrons and governments made many of the determinations of taste. In Europe during the 20th century, national governments played a major role in supporting cultural institutions, such as theaters and museums, with the conviction that culture needs encouragement to survive the forces of free trade. However, over this same period, governments also used culture as a nationalist tool against local and global interests. The draconian cultural policies of the Soviet and Chinese governments are the most prominent examples. But now, new actors — from large corporations to small communities — are exerting their influence in the cultural world. Tax-strapped governments are concerned about how to compete with these new forces while trying to support national culture.

In her article, "Globalisation, Culture and Museums," Linda Young encourages museums not to be afraid of globalization. Young, a senior lecturer in cultural heritage management at Australia’s University of Canberra, writes that "anthropologists observe that adoption of Western or American cultural influences is nowhere total. Elements of Western culture are taken up, yet they receive a local twist… Hollywood spawns Bollywood; TV audiences watch local soaps in between the syndicated comedies." Young reminds her audience that "Cultural contact, clash and change have always accompanied the economic contacts of trade and the political contacts of conquest." She encourages curators to embrace the latest hybrid culture created by the current strain of globalization and calls on her colleagues to collect and document these new cultural forms.

As if to answer Young’s call, the Swedish government will open the National Museum of World Cultures in Göteborg in 2004. In a short essay, Jette Sandahl, director of the new museum, explains the museum’s monumental task: "documenting and communicating the perspective and history of globalisation and internationalism in ways that reflect, but do not perpetuate or legitimise the reality of colonialism." It is commendable that the Swedish government supports an effort to interpret global culture, but this kind of vision is rare.

Governments, communities, curators, corporations, and the public will shape museums in the 21st century. But just as culture shouldn’t be subject to the whims of the market, neither should it be held hostage by any one of these groups.

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola