Philip Barnes: Educational pioneer who founded the Association for Cultural Exchange

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The Independent Online

Philip Barnes has died aged 83 in Cambridge after a long illness borne with heroic gallantry. Fifty-one years ago he initiated the Association for Cultural Exchange, an innovatory travel charity which emphasised learning in depth about different cultures, including one's own.

His was an imposing presence; he possessed an agile and original mind as well as formidable physical and mental energy. Yet unusually he was also able to create a charity set to grow appropriately and outlive its founder. He was an expansive and powerful personality; his was a character who happily recognised ability in others.

His early career was unconventional, distinguished by an imaginative talent to seize opportunities for lateral thinking. He was born in a village in North Yorkshire. His father, George Brooke Barnes, died when he was four, and Philip, an only child, moved with his mother to Essex. He started work as a junior clerk, aged 16, in a firm of chartered accountants, started an economics degree at Birkbeck while still working, then during the war served three years in military intelligence, primarily in India and Singapore. On his return, he finished his economics degree at the LSE, then read philosophy at Jesus, Cambridge. The geographical environs of Cambridge and trips to Scandinavia were very influential not only in his own personal life but for the shaping of ACE. His tenacious determination brooked few obstacles, including those of travel in the 1950s and 1960s, when few of the comforts that tourists now take for granted were available.

He was already committed to worldwide horizons; unusually in the late 1940s he worked as a waiter in the United States, and for a water company in Norway, long before the gap year had been invented. His first professional job post-degree was as a reporter for Reuters, posted to Denmark, confirming a lifelong interest in the Nordic countries. He immersed himself in Scandinavian culture beyond the then popular understanding of their leadership in modern design and the invention of the welfare state. Unusually for a foreigner, Barnes was to study its medieval and renaissance history, an abiding interest. His understanding of Denmark's adult education movement inspired him to invent courses in England for Scandinavian teachers to study English life, culture and language. On one of these he was to meet Inger: they married in 1962.

Barnes was to discover the non-profit model for an organisation dedicated to cultural exchange and understanding rather improbably, the Scottish Council for Trade and Industry acting as his template. Thus by 1957 the pattern was set: ACE was incorporated as an educational charity in 1958. Barnes, its founder, worked without pay for its first 10 years, subsidising his fledging organisation as a supply teacher, and eventually director of an East Anglian newspaper and printing business.

In the 1950s group cultural travel hardly existed, nor the proliferation of overseas campuses for universities. ACE was a pioneer in both at a time when severe currency restrictions hampered travel. Conditions in university halls could be Spartan, and women participants were startled to find scouts bringing them hot water in the morning for shaving. The remodelling of Colleges for the lucrative conference trade was decades in the future. In ACE's first year a summer course at Exeter College, Oxford for Scandinavian teachers was addressed by Clement Attlee, and Barnes wryly noted that the food improved for that day.

In its first three years ACE also maintained a residential centre at Clare, Suffolk, housed in two redundant pubs. But Barnes left the problems of running a hotel in favour of peripatetic courses emphasising travel, although he continued running summer schools at Oxford for two further decades. Courses were held in the UK and in Europe specifically for Americans, (European Art and Architecture) and for the English in the US, (American History and Civilisation), notably at Ripon College in Wisconsin, 1959-1960. Courses were also arranged for the University of Pittsburgh in Denmark and in Wales, examining the search for identity in modern democracies, and work in a free society, both well ahead of their time.

In the course of the next five decades ACE developed organically and unexpectedly, led by the wide-ranging interests of its founder. A passion for India led to scores of trips, initiated long before the hippie trail and at a time when international cultural travel to the subcontinent hardly existed. ACE has sponsored archaeological digs, some of international importance, (notably Oronsay in the Hebrides) which have taught both amateurs and professionals, and still do so; and 28 years of fellowships at UCL's Institute of Archaeology. In recent years subsidised British archaeologists have taught the techniques of aerial archaeology to newly liberated ex-communist countries which in their earlier history could not have countenanced archaeologically motivated flyovers. At a time when the British were still uncomfortable and ill at ease with the notion of German culture, ACE led the way in specialist tours of baroque and rococo Teutonic achievements.

Islamic Spain was also a first, as was the culture of China for the past 30 years, the natural flora and fauna of New Zealand, cultural tours to Bolivia which ignored the habitual revolutions and road blocks so characteristic of that volatile country: 2009 saw a cultural tour to Algeria, another first. Music festivals abroad and at home figure large, as do trips to the conflicted countries of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and the countries of South-east Asia, including visits to Cambodia when that country opened up again to the outside world. In parallel to hundreds of study courses annually for several thousand participants, as the Association's endowment has grown so too have grants for everything from scholarships for foreigners to study conservation and heritage methodology in Britain to archaeological fellowships, bursaries for overseas graduate students for the Universities of York and Cambridge, a school in South Africa, contemporary music commissions, street children in Addis Ababa, women's village education in India, to name but very few.

In the early 1990s Barnes assumed a supervisory role, retiring from active tour leading and handing the role of managing director to his son Hugh; later, his son Paul replaced him as secretary, his daughter Catherine having moved to Norway, after an active role as a tour leader for ACE.

The statistics over the past half-century for a small Cambridge-based travel company are awesome: about 85,000 participants, 4,000 tours worldwide, 90 countries visited, and scores, even hundreds of different lecturers, not to mention committed participants, with several having taken more than 200 tours. Even more, if imitation is the purest form of flattery, the growth of cultural travel, as in adult education, has expanded exponentially in the past half-century. ACE, inspired by its quietly charismatic leader, has been in many respects the role model, although unique in having acted always as a charity. The invention of ACE is a landmark, both in its role in cultural exchange and in imaginative education, and although many have collaborated in its success it is to Philip Barnes that ACE owes its being.

Philip Barnes, cultural travel pioneer; born North Yorkshire 15 June 1926; married 1962 Inger Kragh (two sons, one daughter); died Cambridge 27 July 2009.