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The role of national cultural institutes

The Chinese state increasingly aspires to affirm itself as a key global power. To do so, it has developed a dynamic public diplomacy strategy
OK, that sounds like a simple question. But it’s not a simple answer, I’m afraid. National institutes of culture is an artificial concept created in 2006 after the Treaty of Lisbon, when a couple of institutions, particularly the Goethe Institute and the British Council, thought they would try and form a club of similar like-minded institutes. And they called it European Union National Institutes for Culture. And at that time, it was mainly a club for the arm’s length approach to cultural diplomacy. So arms length cultural diplomacy is the idea that you, in order to build trust and understanding between people, it’s the best way to do that, is at arm’s length from the state since people don’t tend to trust governments very much.
And that’s how the Goethe and the British Council operate, at arm’s length from the state with a lot of operational independence. So in 2006, it was created, a small group of like-minded institutes. And then in 2011, some of the countries didn’t have national institutes of culture said, we’d love to join. Why are we excluded from this club? So we changed the statutes of EUNIC to include national institutions responsible for culture and external relations. This brought in the ministries, which in fact, is not an arms length approach.
These are ministries such as the French MFA, which controls Institut français and other countries, which work– their approach to cultural diplomacy is very much state-driven, the emphasis on the diplomacy, not the cultural component so much. So EUNIC is now composed– has a member from every member state. But most of them are not institutes for culture. Most of them are ministries of foreign affairs and/or ministries of culture.

National cultural institutes remain a key tool of cultural cooperation, as shown by the tremendous expansion of the Chinese Confucius Institutes around the world.

Andrew Murray is the director of EUNIC, The European Union National Institutes for Culture. In this video, he explains what lies behind the term of National Institutes for Culture.

He points out that the key element to understand the missions of a national institute for culture is to look at the kinds of relationship it has with its country’s government.

Institutions like the German Goethe Institute and the British Council, which were among the founding members of EUNIC, have been arguing that national cultural institutes need to be at arm’s length from governments. But effectively this is not the case of all cultural institutes that are members of EUNIC, as others are more government-dependent.

As a result, there is no clear consensus on the missions of a cultural institute. For some a cultural institute’s role is to promote the culture of its country, whereas for others, it is mainly a tool to foster intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding.

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Do you think the role of a national cultural institute is to promote a country’s culture and language or to promote mutual understanding with the country where it is located?

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Cultural Diplomacy

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