26 June 2002

International Dimensions, a 48-page report published by the National Museums Directors' Conference (NMDC) on June 26 2002, charts for the first time the extensive international activity of the UK national collecting institutions.
Picture of International Dimensions ReportDownload the full report.

Researched by AEA Consulting, International Dimensions highlights the importance of the National Museums' contribution in the international arena and the potential for the future. Each section of the report is richly illustrated with practical examples of the National Museums' contribution to agendas of fundamental global importance: from the dialogue between cultures to the preservation of the world's natural assets. The work reaches well beyond the fields of operation traditionally associated with museums.

The National Museums' independent status has been an important factor in establishing their international authority. Many, as the report illustrates, are involved in cultural diplomacy that has endured in times of tension or even conflict, for example:

  • This month (June 2002) curators of seven British institutions, including the Tate and the V&A, visited the Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art (p 13), to view the collections of Western art that have been in store for over two decades. The aim is to establish an exchange of expertise to build local conservation capacity
  • The British Museum (p 11) has been carrying out archaeological field-work in the Sudan for over ten years, in close collaboration with the National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums in Khartoum. The work has continued despite a break-off in diplomatic relations with the Sudan and the closure of most UK and other Western organisations in the country. The work, which has resulted in publications, secondments, advice and support in conservation work and the development of site protection work, will culminate in an exhibition in 2004 to be held in both the Sudan and in the UK.

A number of the National Museums play an important role in addressing the threats to cultural and natural assets worldwide and in the development of international conservation standards and technologies:

  • The Millennium Seed Bank Project, established by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, (p 11) is an unprecedented international programme to store seeds from about 24,000 wild plant species representing about 10 % of the world's seed-bearing flora. To be completed by 2010, this will be a global resource to widen scientific understanding and address sustainable use and conservation of plants, particularly in regions where human livelihoods are most dependent on wild plant species. The project activities are based on legally binding Benefit Sharing Agreements between Kew and project partners with 18 institutions and 13 countries signed up to date.
  • The British Library (p 17) is working with Coptic monasteries in Egypt to train monks in conservation techniques. In early 2002, the librarian monk of Deir-el-Suriyan spent three months in Britain to be trained in parchment and paper conservation techniques which he, together with a senior conservator from the British Library, will pass on to his monastic community. Linked to this is a digitisation project that aims to reunite, virtually, the monasteries' collections dispersed in the 19th century.

Britain's National Museums have a long academic tradition. International Dimensions illustrates the key role that this scholarship and collection-based research plays in collaborative projects:

  • Climate for the World's Oceans (p 24) is a three-year project between the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute and universities in the UK, Spain and Argentina, to create a comprehensive study of log book data from 1750-1850. Ships' log books have long been used to investigate sociological and political aspects of life at sea, but the books are also rich in meteorological data. The detailed weather reports contained within log books from 1750 to 1850 pre-date official climatic records. The CLIWOC project will compare the historic information with current data to measure meteorological changes and global warming. By 2004, this information will be freely accessible to the worldwide scientific community.
  • In the run up to the Sydney Olympics 2000, the Natural History Museum worked with Speedo, the swimwear manufacturer, to pioneer a new material for swimsuits and wet suits inspired by fish skin. The body-hugging suit is covered with V-shaped ridges which improves a swimmer's glide through the water by reducing the drag by up to three percent. The collaboration was the start of a close relationship between the museum and Speedo which has opened up the potential for future investigations to develop ways in which fish might be examined to inspire, develop and improve swimsuits, goggles and other water sport equipment.

The National Museums interact daily with a worldwide audience - London's National Museums alone received over 11 million overseas visitors in 2001 - and, increasingly, with a virtual audience on the internet. In addition, in 2000-2001, NMDC members lent objects from their collections to approximately 850 different institutions around the world:

  • Since the Japan Festival in 1991, the Royal Armouries have regularly exchanged objects from its collection with the Nikko Toshogu Shrine
    (p 30), the burial place of the first modern Shogun. This involves at any one time, revolving displays of 10-20 objects from each other's collections. These loans complement the presentation of 16-19th century arms and armour.
  • The Tate is planning a major exhibition of British art from the 1960s to the present day which will travel to Sao Paolo and Rio de Janerio in 2003-4 (p 33). The exhibition of paintings, sculptures, video and photography, organised in collaboration with the British Council, will be the Tate\'s first to be sent to Latin America.

International Dimensions makes a series of recommendations designed to position international activities at the centre of each institution's agenda and collectively within the NMDC (p 42):

  • International reach and responsibility should be given more prominence in corporate plans and should become part of the reporting cycles
  • Internal organisational structures should be reviewed in terms of: international responsibilities at senior management level, staff compositions (eg nationality, language skills and cultural backgrounds), and of international representation on Boards of Trustees and their Committees
  • The NMDC's relationship with the relevant government departments and organisations with an international remit, in particular the FCO and the British Council, should be redefined to promote greater collaboration and co-ordination

This report puts the focus clearly on the importance of the National Museums' international activity and sets the broader context within which they can continue to address such key and sensitive issues as trade in cultural goods, spoliation and the repatriation of cultural property.

Notes to Editors

NMDC International Affairs Committee

Dr Robert Anderson, Director, British Museum (Chair)
Sean Bullick, Secretary, NMDC
Richard Calvocoressi, Director, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Dr Nigel Fergusson, Leader of Collections Consultancy, Natural History Museum
Neil MacGregor, Director, National Gallery
Sandy Nairne, Director of Programmes, Tate
Penny Ritchie Calder, Head of Exhibitions, Imperial War Museum
Dr Deborah Swallow, Chief Curator, Indian and South East Asian Departments, Victoria and Albert Museum