France has the Mona Lisa. Italians are rightly proud of Michelangelo's beautiful Sistine Chapel. Britons, on the other hand, are being handed a cup of tea as the country's cultural icon.
The humble cuppa will join the Magna Carta, Hadrian's Wall and the Routemaster bus on a government website aimed at defining the country's most important cultural symbols.
Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, has approved the £1m project designed to define what makes UK culture great.
The website, called Icons, will list and celebrate the UK's most important artistic symbols "from the gallery to the street".
Prosaic items such as the policeman's helmet and the Morris Minor car will be considered, alongside masterpieces such as Constable's Haywain and the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: "It will take us from the Rosetta Stone to the Routemaster bus. It's a debate about what culture is and what it means to be English. The cup of tea is in itself an icon. It has a lot of cultural associations."
But the inclusion of tea is likely to infuriate traditionalists, who may accuse the Government of sidelining artistic geniuses such as Turner in favour of vernacular objects.
The public will be allowed to vote on whether symbols such as the red telephone box, the Aston Martin car or the Morris Traveller will qualify.
The website is certain to include the Mappa Mundi, the 13th-century map of the world which is in Hereford Cathedral, Stonehenge and the cup of tea, which officials believe "represents far more than a hot drink". The Cutty Sark, which is moored at Greenwich, is also likely to qualify.
Masterpieces by foreign artists in British galleries, such as Canova's The Three Graces and Van Gogh's Sunflowers, have not been ruled out. And controversial symbols such as the Elgin Marbles, which the Greek government says were stolen from the Parthenon, will also be included in a national debate being launched later this year.
The cultural importance of uniquely British dishes such as fish and chips, haggis and bangers and mash will also be considered. But organisers are keen that the project is not seen to be frivolous.
The website will be a flagship project run by Culture Online, a division of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport aimed at making culture more accessible to the public through new technology including the internet. It has agreed a £1m budget for the project and is in advanced discussions with museums and galleries about featuring their masterpieces on the website, which will have interactive features and reviews by experts and celebrities.
The project is being run by Jonathan Drori, a former head of commissioning at BBC Online and producer of Tomorrow's World. He said the aim was to extend the reach and definition of culture and therefore engage the public. "We want to get across what makes something iconic. And that has to include a cup of tea. There is an amazing history behind tea. Tea was not only arguably behind the empire but the industrial revolution and the porcelain industry," Mr Drori said.
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