Message from Edinburgh: no one owns culture

From a speech given by Penny Lewis, an architectural journalist as part of the Institute of Ideas debate at the Edinburgh Book Festival

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In Scotland we are in serious danger of creating a climate in which creativity is not considered authentic or meaningful unless the artist has roots. Glasgow is currently hosting a series of events called Threads in the Tartan, looking at Scottish artists and designers with ethnic backgrounds. But visitors learn more about the people than their cultural output.

In Scotland we are in serious danger of creating a climate in which creativity is not considered authentic or meaningful unless the artist has roots. Glasgow is currently hosting a series of events called Threads in the Tartan, looking at Scottish artists and designers with ethnic backgrounds. But visitors learn more about the people than their cultural output.

Ever since the Scottish Office ran an international competition to find a suitable designer for the Scottish Parliament and the jury selected a Spaniard, the late Enric Miralles, I have been mulling over the idea of "cultural ownership".

It is easy to dismiss those Scots who argued for a Scottish architect and those who wanted a building compiled of brochs and towers. However, those people who raised doubts over Enric Miralles's ability, as a foreigner, to grasp the cultural context in which he was working have been taken much more seriously.

The idea of an innate Scottish psyche is not that far removed from the idea of shared traditions and values promoted in the Scottish Executive's new cultural strategy. Even when Scottish institutions claim to be internationalist, the foreign cultural activity that they encourage is often selected to reflect positively on Scotland and its traditions.

Work from small northern countries such as Denmark or vibrant post-industrial metropolises such as Barcelona gets an enthusiastic welcome. I have come to the conclusion that Miralles won the commission for the parliament building because, as a romantic Catalan, he helped to give form to New Labour's idea of New Scotland. Miralles's parliament design has become burdened with the responsibility for a sense of national identity, something the politicians have proved to be incapable of doing.

The idea that some creative activity speaks more directly to certain geographically defined groups is highlighted in the debate about cultural artefacts. Those who favour the return of the Elgin Marbles or the Benin Bronzes believe that the objects have a special meaning for the people living in the area in which they were originally created.

This time last year I was very depressed by Glasgow Museum's decision to give the Ghost Dance Shirt to the Survivors of Wounded Knee Association. I was infuriated by the idea that Glasgow could not claim to be the "friendly city" as long as Glaswegians were burdened with the guilt of having ripped the shirt off the dying Dakota Sioux chief.

As a resident of the city I feel no sense of responsibility for Wounded Knee and I thought it equally ridiculous that the survivors (not real survivors, as the battle took place in 1890) would be floundering without this relic. The idea of "moral ownership" undermines that idea of culture as the sum of mankind's individual achievements. The idea that a small group of people have a greater claim over historical artefacts than others is alien to the concept of great culture.

All great leaps in imagination were inspired by the sum of accumulated knowledge available at the time. Brunelleschi was very secretive when he cracked the design of the first dome, but once the dome was built, the achievement was public property.

I have always thought of culture as the accumulated knowledge and creativity of the whole of human society, not a component in the branding or self-affirmation of a particular region.

Le Corbusier may have been an élitist snob, but his designs made an impact on millions of people; he will always be thought of as a grand master, never a French architect.

Nobody owns culture; both its creation and its consumption force us to rise above the self-interested, the petty and the parochial. If individuals or institutions own and care for cultural artefacts they should do what they want with them. The idea of "moral ownership" is damaging the spirit of cultural creativity.

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