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open the past, create the future

Pullman at Modern Liberty Convention

Amongst many inspiring words coming out of today’s Modern Liberty Convention, I was particularly impressed with Philip Pullman’s keynote address. His closing assertion that,

“We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation.”

had me cheering in front of my webcast. However, when I read back over the whole speech I was struck by something I didn’t hear first time round (yay for the webcasts but they were sometimes a bit challenging to access):

Another virtue that a nation needs is intellectual curiousity. Wakefulness of mind, one might put it. A nation with that quality would be aware of itself, conscious of itself and its history, and every separate thread that makes up the tapestry of its culture. It would believe that the highest knowledge of itself had been expressed by its artists, its writers and poets, and it would teach its children how to know and how to understand and love. We have to be taught how to love, how to love their work, believing that this activity would give them, the children, an important part to play in the self-knowledge and the memory of the nation.

A nation where this virtue was strong, would be active and enquiring of mind, quick to perceive and compare and consider. Such a nation would know at once when a government tried to interfere with its freedoms. It would remember how all those freedoms had been gained, because each one would have a story attached to it, and an attack on any of them would feel like a personal affront. That is the value of wakefulness…

In order for this to be possible, history has to be something that we can first access in order to attach our stories and make those key moments personal. History has to be something that we can engage with if we are to be able to “compare and consider”.  The fact that we can’t access, interpret, share and chat around much of the cultural heritage of Britain as contained in our publicly funded cultural institutes is a further symptom of our disengagement with ourselves as a nation. The mandates under which the BBC, the British Museum and others operate should today ensure that we have the greatest, most meaningful access to the collections they have so carefully created and protected on our behalf. And yet, even as the technology makes it possible, we still can’t engage with our cultural history in meaningful ways.

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