Welcome to the UCL Culture blog

Simon Cane, Director, UCL Culture

As Director of UCL Culture, I am kicking off this blog which will be picked up by my colleagues in the department and hopefully some guests over the coming weeks and months.

Time lapse of the UCL Culture launch event — November 2016

When we launched UCL Culture with our Manifesto last November we were reeling from the outcome of the Brexit vote in June and the Election of The Donald in November. Things have moved on since then and not necessarily for the better, but my sense is that this is an opportunity for those of us concerned with the glue that binds society. At UCL Culture, we see that glue as being a powerful mix of all the things we identify as culture. Defining culture is always contentious but Brian Eno suggested that culture is ‘everything that you don’t have to do’ in his 2015 John Peel Lecture, a line I think he lifted from elsewhere. He went on to elaborate that his definition referred to culture as all those things that are not required for our basic sustenance. He expresses the sentiment that culture is hard to pin down as a term, but this wide and all-encompassing definition is one that we at UCL Culture recognise and dare I say, embrace.

We know that politicians and governments struggle with the concepts of culture as illustrated in the triptych of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport created by the Blair government whose nerve clearly failed when they had the chance to recognise the power and importance of culture as an office of government in its own right. The subsequent, ongoing and increasingly reductive, arguments about cultural value, its monetisation and the creation of ‘hard metrics’ to measure its value speak to a country who clearly love their culture (any number of measures, museum and gallery visits, theatre attendance, wider arts engagement etc. support this view) but who are not yet prepared to say it really matters, like money matters.

I heard David Willetts, former Minister of State for Universities and Science speak last year at an event where he said ‘you can find the boundaries of art more quickly than you can science’. I’m not sure I agree with the statement but what is suggests to me is that there remains a division between science (hard facts) and culture, which can be also be hard but in a very different way but which is perceived as soft and of less real value. Surely the point is that both science and culture require rigour and critique when they are at their best and both help us to understand and deal with the world we live in. One is not more important than the other and this idea is expressed through our Manifesto which is both a response and a challenge to UCL’s mission.

Naomi Fitzsimmons — Manifesto performance, launch night — November 2016 “I will always be open”

We believe that it starts with ‘the power of open’; open to sharing and developing knowledge, open to discussion and debate and vitally, open in terms of access to that knowledge. If we are open we light sparks of inspiration, create new interactions and connections between academics, students and the world they seek to influence and improve through their work. Most importantly we want to mobilise people through enabling and empowering them to make a difference, to challenge and to change the way the world is.

These aims combined with our Manifesto themes, Culture = Health, Museum = Lab and Performance = Knowledge reflect the institutional culture of UCL, which is why we created UCL Culture, a department at large across the institution, starting conversations, creating connections and giving that creative push.

As we deal with the phenomena of fake news, alternative facts and different truths in our post-truth society, the role of academics, students and universities has never been more important. Michael Gove might not have time for such ‘experts’ but it is through the development, synthesis, exploration and critique of knowledge that we can understand that truths are matters of opinion and perspective but facts are well, facts, testable, reproducible, durable, irrevocable, and we have the power to distinguish between truths and facts and to make our own minds up. While I would have preferred to launch our Manifesto in less tumultuous times I have to say that it felt right that we should reference the long tradition of committing to print our beliefs and values and sharing them as widely as possible. It was after all the invention of the printing press that opened up knowledge to the masses and gave them a means of communicating outside of the establishment. Monarchs, dictators, politicians and governments have sought to restrict that freedom to varying degrees ever since through taxation, through law and through censorship. Yet the people still find ways to make their voices heard, to use knowledge to speak truth to power and to hold those who would silence them to account.

And that is what we think matters about the work we do in UCL Culture. UCL is concerned with how the world is and about making it a better place through the co-creating and sharing of knowledge even if that sometimes makes us and others uncomfortable and we are committed to that mission.