Connecting Through Culture

With the cultural centre of gravity about to shift to Edinburgh for the summer, British Council have published the Edinburgh International Culture Summit report.  ‘Connecting Through Culture’ reflects discussions held in the Scottish Parliament during the last Culture Summit.  It focusses on three topics: culture in a networked world, culture and wellbeing, and culture and investment.

CULTURE IN A NETWORKED WORLD

How can culture build bridges of understanding across peoples, generations, and tribes in a fragmented world? What is the best way to ensure the full involvement of both the young and the old, to bring in the marginalised and give a voice to civic society? Culture sector practitioners are increasingly focussed on these and other issues affecting the culture sector, including many arising from the rise of social media, socio-cultural and political polarisation, and the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Delegates at the Edinburgh Culture Summit came together to share their understanding of the role of culture in building communities – how it underpins success and how it can be used to overcome challenges and division. Such divisions can come from cultural differences, from suspicion of the other and from the exploitation of that fear by demagogues.  After all, culture isn’t always benign – it can divide – but cultural engagement is also the best way to foster understanding and reconciliation. 

It was agreed that culture needs to be central to thinking about how people connect to one another, to communities, to people from other places, to the past, present and future, to the other. The arts have an essential role to play here, helping people understand and negotiate their way through the challenges of the modern world, and to explore what divides people in a way that fosters understanding and allows for co-operation. Where other avenues can risk exacerbating tensions, culture allows people with differing views to come together. The arts provide a safe space where people can convene to rediscover their common humanity. In the age of ‘beautiful walls’ and yellow jackets, the arts are more important than ever.

CULTURE AND WELLBEING 

The sustainable provision of healthcare is a vital concern for governments around the world, made more acute with demographic changes and increased lifespans. A growing body of neurological and clinical research indicates that participation in cultural activity offers long-lasting benefits for a range of medical conditions. 

The manifold benefits of cultural participation were discussed in the Culture and Wellbeing strand of the Summit.  For example, Dr Assal Habibi, Assistant Research Professor, the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, highlighted the impact of music education on the neural development of young people. Participation increases socialisation, cognition… in essence, it makes childrens’ brains work better, helping them be both more successful in school but also to be better humans, able to work well with others and understand the importance of community. It is imperative that children and young people are encouraged and supported to participate. That means financial support for the visual arts, music and drama in schools, for the training of teachers and other cultural professionals, and for facilities for practice and performance in the community. 

Delegates learned that culture can sometimes help address physical and mental health challenges in surprising ways. Professor Bas Bloem, Director and Consultant Neurologist, Radboud University Medical Centre, shared an example of a man from India with Parkinson’s disease who was unable to walk: 

We know that patients with Parkinson’s disease have a deficit in the brain’s automatic pilot, which means that anything that needs to be automatic goes awry. However, when people try to climb stairs, they find that they can walk; they compensate for their disease. This particular man climbs stairs every day, but as you know, houses do not have staircases everywhere. His niece, who is a designer and an artist, created a three-dimensional illusion of a staircase on the floor, and it allowed him to walk.

Culture needs to be placed at the heart of thinking about health and social care. Participation is vital to health and wellbeing throughout people’s lives.

CULTURE AND INVESTMENT: A CULTURAL INFRASTRUCTURE MODEL

Culture permeates throughout societies, touching and affecting all aspects of the everyday experience of individuals and communities. It is part of the fabric of place, the connective tissue of communities. Instead of being seen as a luxury or ‘add-on item’ which can be safely cut when resources are limited, culture needs to be seen as core to the function of a community. Approaching culture as essential infrastructure – in the same way as transport, energy and the water supply – is the best way to get decisions on investment right. Strategic planning and interventions are necessary to build thriving, resilient communities. 

Cultural infrastructure involves both physical assets – galleries, concert halls, libraries, theatres – and intangible ones. The latter can be hard to discern and harder still to understand, but if anything have greater impact than the capital assets. A theatre is more than its stalls and proscenium arch. It is the performers, the front of house and backstage staff, the technicians, artists, and administrators, and the people it serves: those who buy tickets and the wider taxpaying public that directly fund its programmes, but also the local services and infrastructure it depends on. The physical asset, the theatre, is entirely dependent on the co-operation of the different but overlapping communities that support it. It is essential that funding decisions strike the right balance between, on the one hand, spending on bricks and mortar, and on the other, investment in the human and social capital that brings cultural institutions to life.

The publication of this report is both a time of reflection, but also for looking forward to the next Summit when the culture ministers and sector will return once again to the Scottish Parliament – to come together to debate the challenges facing communities, and how culture can help people to connect.

Alistair MacDonald, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council