IS THERE A COMMON WEALTH CULTURE?

A paper delivered by Ladi Ladebo at the 2004 Commonwealth Film Festival Debate, Manchester U.K on May 3, 2004.

Superficially, there is evidently a Commonwealth Culture. Since the evolution of the Commonwealth of Nations in the mid 1960's, the member countries have interacted as a family. This is distinct from, say, the United Nations, the formation of which had been more of a legally-worded charter ‘in an effort to establish a recognized standards for international conduct'. Considering the members long association since the British colonial empire days, and the subsequent similar decolonising process in the Commonwealth evolution, member states have come to share some cultural traits. One can talk of shared common values, common legal, and political systems similar business practices and indeed similar traditions and history. The consistency of these similar patterns over decades or generations through the learning process projects the image of a Commonwealth culture, so to say. Of course, these noticeable similarities are made to seem natural because of the English Language. Natural, because there has never been a special law enacted among the members that prescribes that every member state must communicate in English. On the contrary, each member state is more or less impelled to do so by the fact that the Association members are engaged in a social relationship that requires mutual understanding. This is irrespective of members' respective national language(s). This is one uniquely distinguishing factor that makes the Commonwealth more of a family, in contrast to the United Nations, for example.

Is the Commonwealth Culture as at the moment worth defending? The developing nations in the Commonwealth seem to benefit from the buffer provided by the Association in the present and ever changing world of globalization. What with the dizzying pace at which all sectors of our existence are moving. These movements of people, commodities, information, images and knowledge characterize today's new world order. Developing nations groan under the new world order which paradoxically impoverishes their peoples. There seems to be an unnatural pressure from the developed nations for commonalties. Terms like globalization, standardization, sameness, oneness and unity, reign menacingly, and further create potential crisis points. Our existence is being suffocated by intolerance of difference by a world order forever searching for commonalties among diverse peoples. Sure enough, the Commonwealth does provide some respite through the Association's advisory role in attempting to safeguard members' common economic, social, legal and developmental interests. This has created an enhanced capacity among member nations to trust one another and confidently plod on. Not surprising, this trust exists mostly among the political masters' class.

However, the people who seriously need to feel effects of all the Association's collaborations at the grassroots are being short-changed on the real development aspect. Much of the focus so far on global democracy, global economics, international law, inter-governmental arrangements and other global programmes are yet to lead humanity towards sustainability because individuals at the grassroots are not made part of the process. To be more precise, the focus on Commonwealth ARTS and CULTURE is not as prominent. Peoples needs and aspirations are not automatically fulfilled because of increased commerce among members states of the Association. ARTS do not recognize maps, being expression of shared human experiences; while CULTURE is a tool for uniting and breaking down the artificial geographical boundaries. There are benefits for all humanity when artistes in the Commonwealth can exchange regular visits and cultural programs among themselves and crossbreed ideas on continuous basis; this in parallel to, and as a contribution to government activities. There is a strong suspicion among artists and cultural participants that most governments and their officials are rather cynical about arts and culture matters.

The Commonwealth Peoples Forum is a concept that should be given as much focus as the other Association's other programmes. The Forum during last Abuja meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government, in 2003, confirmed that it is a program that ought not be left as an occasional process scheduled for only when our political masters meet. Our diversity makes for the richness and vitality of the Commonwealth as a family. The Commonwealth population must be encouraged to participate in the development process which invariably is only possible at the local level and especially through our cultural institutions including the museums.

At this moment in Africa, for example, a vast majority of our population consider museum as an elitist institution that have little or no relevance to the citizens. Yet the museums appear to be in a privileged position in our quest for Commonwealth cultural development. Granted that museum is a Western concept and which most people in developing countries identify only with exhibition of artefacts; it is time we take the lead off this misnomer. All types of museums exist beyond this narrowly described notion. There are museums to include art, zoos, technology, and from capital cities museums to rural historical sites, and private small collections on specific old or new expertise. I can happily record some recent examples in Nigeria. The plan for a Nigerian Railway Museum in Lagos and a War Museum to be established in Umuahia town, and another in Igboukwu in the East. It is instructive to note that school children and ordinary citizens throng zoos during especially public holidays in Nigeria.

The University of Ibadan zoo which, ironically, is being allowed to rot in this era of economic standardization, is the only big museum type attraction in a city with 4 million people. Nonetheless, there are opportunities to begin to explore the potentials of all cultural assets, and the encouragement of more local museums that could be established. The Nigerian examples are similar in most developing countries of the Commonwealth. Museums and other heritage institutions in Commonwealth countries hold the potentials for harnessing the cultural benefits of development. A more conscious coordination among these cultural institutions will help our Commonwealth museums work in increasing the population's sense of belonging and confidence.

There exists the Commonwealth Association of Museums essentially engaged in long distance learning. But what is being suggested here is a more concerted experiment to forge new solidarity, against a backdrop of difference; cultural, geographical, social, economic, political and technological. Cultural development requires not only a sense of belonging, and cultural identity but also the need, through cooperation, to explore and take advantage of natural cultural resources along with local populations' talent, initiative, knowledge, memories and know-how and the wealth abound in the respective communities including those housed in museums.

Although the Commonwealth envisaged cultural experiment could take time, and will require serious collaboration and consensus building, that difficult task is minimized because there exists the necessary internal trust among members. What may also make the journey much faster is that the world's oldest national and leading museum is in the Commonwealth; and has the experience, the capacity and resources to guide this essential ‘family cultural development venture. What is required is the will to make Arts and Culture imperative as a major focus for citizens development.

This is a period when, maybe because of their reaction to external overwhelming emphasis on assimilation and the threat of commonness, peoples in developing nations are reclaiming control over their patrimony, and even over the telling or re-writing of their stories. There is no better time than now for the Commonwealth family in particular to encourage museum culture with a sustainable cultural development as its main focus. Such a higher concept, by necessity, can only be achieved if based on cultural equality, empathy, tolerance, respect and empowerment. This will require the dropping of such old notion of referring to arts and cultural objects as “primitive” or “exotic”. It calls for a new way of assessing non-western and or minority cultures in their context. There exists a natural opportunity through arts and culture for citizens of the Commonwealth to glorify individual cultures while also underlining their universal similarities.

Museums in the Commonwealth family should be able to loan and exchange art objects, organize continuous traveling exhibitions and negotiate the return of items to their origin which have duplicates in the West. The idea of joint excavation projects among members become imperative with all the advantages that go with it leading to equitable terms in the share of and availability of objects and exchange of expertise and to curb plundering and illicit trade in antiquity. This will encourage the conservation of archaeological sites and objects and the long term development of mutually beneficial partnerships among museums in the Commonwealth. The unique placement of museum at the core of international issues like sustainable and cultural development, plus cultural identity will help to foster a sense of solidarity among Commonwealth citizens by addressing other issues like poverty eradication, and inequality among peoples from local, national, regional and global perspective. The sincerity with which this process is handled is likely to reduce the present snares, and provide ideal atmosphere in ‘reflecting and mediating the claims of various groups'.

Motion pictures, music, paintings, drawings plus translations into English of indigenous writings ought to be introduced into Commonwealth member museums programs. These could be used for a purpose different from the popular culture which is driven by private-sector economic orientation. The aim should be to penetrate the emotional, intellectual and spiritual depths of human cultural needs. Exhibition, including Video Installation, will attract more local identification, for example, if planned and executed as festival, in member countries, making our new museums essentially more responsible to the realities of their audiences, and have meanings to the citizens.The effort here, of course, does not call for just a strictly tourism oriented museums. Naturally, enormous benefits exist for the Commonwealth tourism trade which in itself is also vital in the process to concretize a Commonwealth culture; only that the positive long-term and continuous impact on the local communities must be the aim of museums. For development to be sustainable it ought to have the potential to be realized in the long-term and have the time and resources for continuous transformation to take place.

In the words of a learned friend and a Commonwealth compatriot, “if the Commonwealth has any value beyond a reminder of British Empire, it is the opportunity it affords to recognize and celebrate difference. If this is what Commonwealth is about so that Commonwealth culture means a culture of embracing and promoting difference, then all is well and good”.