Open for Discussion: Museums, Libraries and Soft Power

Published in March 2021, the UK government’s Integrated Review, Global Britain in a competitive age, claims that the UK is a ‘soft power superpower’. The review highlights the country’s cultural and academic institutions as one of its soft power strengths. It also identifies shifts in the soft power landscape, indicating that ‘the UK’s soft power cannot be taken for granted.’  Other commentary suggests that the UK’s soft power is in fact waning, undermined by Brexit and other factors: for example, in a British Council survey of 2020 over young people in 19 member states of the G20 group, perceptions of the UK in Europe had ‘declined sharply in the last two years’. 
Cultural and academic institutions have traditionally been seen as trusted, impartial voices at home and abroad even when the government’s actions are seen as unwise or inconsistent. This is echoed in the 2021 review: 
The source of much of the UK’s soft power lies beyond the ownership of government - an independence from state direction that is essential to its influence.
This panel asks whether government policy, spending priorities, long-term planning, and recent actions threaten to weaken the UK’s soft power, or have already done so? In particular, whether some of the recent appointments to the boards and executive positions of cultural institutions, seen by many commentators as attempts to undermine their independence from government, also undermine their ability to speak out boldly in defence of the role of cultural and creative industries in an open, democratic society?


Ruth Ur, the Berlin-based founder of urKultur and Director of the German Friends of Yad Vashem. Ruth has over 20 years' international experience initiating and running flagship cultural projects. She held a number of senior leadership positions at the British Council, including postings to Israel (2003-06) and Turkey (2007-10) and, as Director of the UK/India Year of Culture in 2017, Ruth curated the first-ever artwork to cover the entire façade of Buckingham Palace. Ruth has worked in some of the world's most politically challenging environments, including North Africa during the Arab Spring and South Sudan.

Jonathan McClory, Partner at Sanctuary Counsel, an advisory firm in London, and a globally recognized expert on soft power, public diplomacy and place branding. Before joining Sanctuary Counsel, Jonathan was General Manager for Asia at Portland, where he built up and oversaw the company’s work across Asia Pacific from Singapore. Before working in the private sector, Jonathan was based at the Institute for Government, where he developed the world's first composite index for measuring the soft power of countries. This earlier work informed his development of The Soft Power 30, an annual study that has been widely used as a benchmark by foreign ministries across the globe.

Professor Margot Finn, FBA, Professor of Modern History at UCL. Margot’s research ranges from Victorian popular politics to British colonial and imperial relations, with an emphasis on the family, material culture and transnational encounters. Margot served as President of the Royal Historical Society from 2016-20, where she co-authored reports on race/ethnicity, gender, and LGBT+ equality. She also served on the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 2012 to 2018.

This session will be chaired by Clare Lees, Director of the Institute of English Studies, Catriona Cannon, Senate House Librarian and Programme Director, and Bill Sherman, Director of The Warburg Institute.

Organisations: School of Advanced Study

Event date: Wednesday, 18 May 2022 - 6:00pm

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