The UK’s University of Birmingham has hosted a series of events aimed at leveraging cultural assets to foster soft diplomacy across the US.
A portrait of Moroccan Ambassador, Abd Al-Wahid bin Mas’ood, is typically on display at UoB’s Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, however it has been on loan over the past year to museums across the US for Tudor art exhibitions.
Most recently, it was a featured portrait at The Legion of Honour Museum in San Francisco. A delegation from UoB visited the museum this month and hosted events for alumni, including a panel discussion at the British Consulate-General to explore the power of cultural assets in building bridges between universities and other organisations.
Panellists drew parallels between the Tudor regime’s strategies and modern approaches employed by nations to amplify their global influence.
“With the rise of populism, cultural diplomacy has become critical to counter perceptions and to influence the middle ground”
Tammy Sandhu, British deputy consul-general, asserted that the study of historical cultural exchanges helps inform an approach to international diplomacy and cross-border relations. “It teaches us lessons to ensure we don’t make the same mistakes from the past,” she said.
Sandhu warned of an increasingly polarised society. “With the rise of populism, cultural diplomacy has become critical to counter perceptions and to influence the middle ground.”
She added, “Shakespeare is one of the UK’s greatest cultural exports to project the UK’s culture, expertise, diversity of thought, [and] power of influence.
“It’s a way for people to have a greater affinity with the UK than they might have otherwise had. And that can be through links [with] training, investment economics, research opportunities, going to university [and] travelling in the UK as tourists.”
Likewise, Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute indicated, “Culture is a great way of starting conversations, even for people who aren’t talking about culture. And it’s a great way of enshrining and securing shared meaning, within which other conversations take place.”
The panellists each advocated for an emphasis on the study of the humanities in an increasingly digitised and globalised world; one in which STEM concentrations are often more highly valued.
“Humanities is all about understanding human society, the human spirit, [and] form,” UoB pro-vice-chancellor Andrew Stockley said. “That understanding is key to making these new technologies [and] advances succeed.”
The panellists agreed that cultural artefacts such as the loaned portrait have long served as bridges between different cultures to enhance cross-cultural understanding.
“When you look back in history, it’s always been the case,” said Stockley. He said when nations’ dignitaries met, entertainers in their entourage would perform to display the cultural merit of their countries.
“And when you go forward to the time of the Cold War, the sending of Russian ballet troops was again a way [for] people to see the wonders of Russian ballet [and] a way in which you could see [commonalities which] helps promote peace and understanding.”
Chiba said, “This [portrait] was an ambassador from Morocco to England and at the moment, [it] is being an ambassador from Birmingham to San Francisco”, noting that Birmingham is a multicultural city with a large Muslim population.
“It’s not forming bridges, but it is evidence of a bridge that already exists, and we are still walking across it,” she concluded.
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