Letters: Britain's museums

Museum failure shows our lack of a grand narrative

Monday 02 February 2009 01:00

If the montage of images that heads your story on the new Department for Culture, Media and Sport report is anything to go by (30 January), we have moved on from Tony Blair's Cool Britannia to Gordon Brown's United Kitschdom without even noticing. Perhaps it is as well that the report rejects the proposal for a Museum of British History and questions the attempt to pin down some "essential" Britishness as its overarching narrative frame. For, as Tristram Hunt suggests, a much more diffuse, multifaceted approach is required to do justice to the complexity of who we now are.

The failure of the project highlights the fact that we do not have any grand narrative that links key moments in the nation-building story to some founding myth or common destiny. Yet once upon an Imperial time we did. It was spelt out for children in HE Marshall's Our Island Story (1905) and given its full and final elaboration in Churchill's The Island Race, published after the Second World War.

The plot is simple enough: what shapes and unites our various communities is the fact of co-habiting a small but providential island home and the need to use the sea as both means of defence and attack, to ensure that "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves".

It would be worth mounting an exhibition to document the elements that went into the construction of this epic fairy tale, and to trace its impact on the generations of British schoolchildren who grew up with it in the first half of the 20th century. The subsequent history of the narrative, its appropriation by Enoch Powell and the far right, its persistence as a theme tune of popular patriotism under Thatcher, especially at the time of the Falklands War, and the recent attempt to update and detoxify the story, as in the BBC TV series Coast, would all provide interesting insights into how Britain and the British have been imagined more or less "islishly".

These are some of the questions being pursued under the academic umbrella of British studies, and which the proposed new website might facilitate. This kind of work may not do anything directly to renew popular support for the Act of Union, but fed intelligently into the national curriculum, it might help young people get more involved in the debate.

Professor Phil Cohen

London N19

Bible exhorts us to care for the Earth

Genesis is not to blame for "the greedy over-exploitation of the Earth's natural resources" ("Genesis? It can go forth and multiply", 31 January). Surely Sir David Attenborough overlooks the instruction given at Genesis 2:15 to the first human: "Yahweh God took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it" (Jerusalem Bible).

Dominion and subjection are not synonyms for exploitation. A team of rangers may be given dominion over an extensive nature reserve, to look after it, with the plant and animal life subject to their watchful care.

If the team decides to secede from government control, claiming that autonomy will be better, and proceeds to exploit the reserve terribly, surely the higher authorities will be justified in removing them before all is ruined?

David Boyce

GOUROCK, Renfrewshire

I have two points to make about the article and the accompanying reply piece by Catherine Pepinster.

The first is, why was there a reply at all? I do not imagine that if you published a piece by or about a religious leader, you would give an automatic right of reply to an atheist or secularist. Why must there be this cultural cringe to the religious, especially when the point that she makes could easily have been incorporated into the body of the main story?

The second concerns the point she was making. It consists simply of denying the clear meaning of a word. There is no possible dictionary definition where dominion and stewardship can be equated. It is simply an example of "pick and mix" theology, where the inconvenient bits in the Bible are either ignored or (mis)interpreted out of existence. The words quoted by Sir David Attenborough are clear and explicit and can have no other interpretation than the one he places on them.

Mark Austin

Morden, Surrey

When brilliant men such as Sir David Attenborough decide to speak about the Bible, is it too much to ask that they apply to the Bible the same standards of rigour that they apply to texts within their own discipline?

How is it possible to believe that the God who made his creation with such care, declaring it in Genesis 1:31 to be "very good", would in verse 28 tell his creatures to go and trash it? Although there have been some in the past who, like Sir David, have taken this verse out of context, interpreting it as an excuse for untrammelled exploitation of natural resources, it has been the overwhelming consensus of the Christian community over centuries that "the Earth is the Lord's" and we are stewards of it, responsible to him for our care of it.

If Sir David is intent on laying the finger of blame on anyone for the misuse of creation, he should begin with Aristotle. It was he, not the Bible, who taught that the created order exists for the exclusive benefit of human beings.

Second, Sir David should consider the effects of the Enlightenment. By excluding the creator from rational argument, it effectively declared the natural realm to be owner-free, and natural resources to be available to whoever the local owner was at nil cost. By enshrining self-centredness as the basis for philosophy, and thus privatising morality, it opened the way for the industrial revolution to take whatever it wanted for its own purposes, with no one to hinder it.

The Bible has always stood against self-centredness, moral relativism, and the misuse of God's creation.

Dr Nigel Halliday

Liss, Hampshire

Surely it is the worship of Mammon and not biblical literalism that has the most to answer for when it comes to the despoilment of our natural environment.

Jeremy Legg

Bournemouth, Dorset

The problems of comparing degrees

Not only is it impossible to compare firsts in degrees from different institutions, it is also impossible to compare firsts in different subjects within the same institutions ("Universities call for new degree classifications", 29 January). I can say with all confidence that the first I managed to pull off in archaeology and anthropology at Oxford is not a feat I could have repeated in classics, the subject for which I won my place.

Employers not only have the unenviable task then of distinguishing between institutions, but as with A-levels, they must learn to distinguish between subjects too. The ranking of subjects is contentious, but who can argue that a first in classics, which requires you to learn ancient Greek from scratch and to be able to read the epics of Homer and Virgil in their original languages, equates in achievement terms to a first in a subject that requires you to do little more than read the papers of other academics and then write your own.

As long as degrees are marked by the people who teach them, this problem will never be resolved.

Sarah Jane Marshall

London W14

UK is committed to fighting Aids

I was surprised and disappointed to read Jeremy Hunt's comments about the Department for International Development's commitment to fighting HIV and Aids under Douglas Alexander (You Ask the Questions, 26 January). At DfID, our commitment to tackle the spread of the disease remains a priority. DfID is the second largest bilateral funder in the world of HIV prevention, treatment and support.

Douglas Alexander asked me to visit South Africa around the time of World Aids Day last year, where I saw for myself how huge the challenges we face are. Every day, more than 6,800 people become infected with HIV and more than 5,700 people die from Aids across the world. As we announced last year in our Aids strategy, Achieving Universal Access, for the next seven years we will be spending just under £1bn a year on health systems in the developing world, including aspects of Aids that fall under the health sector, such as treatment.

I would like to reassure the British public that the UK takes its responsibility towards fighting the spread of HIV and Aids very seriously.

Ivan Lewis

Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department for International Development

London SW1

Barrage could benefit wildlife

The environmental lobbyists are always telling us about the losses that would result from anything that does not take their fancy. What they never mention are the gains – for example, how many beautiful highland lochs now occupy what would otherwise be desolate Scottish glens, had they not been transformed by the building of reservoirs for hydro-electric projects?

Glen Affric is a spectacularly beautiful and functional example of something that would never happen these days. And there is a lovely stretch of increasingly mature woodland, otherwise known as the Newbury bypass. How many people would have ever seen a hawk or a falcon, were it not for the motorway embankments that now are among their happiest hunting grounds?

Birds? I find it hard to fathom how the Slimbridge sanctuary would be in anyway harmed by the barrage. Fish? Many Scottish reservoirs have excellent fish ladders that do not impede the flow of salmon to their spawning grounds. The solutions are simple and well-tested if you care to look for them. But of course we would lose that top-million wonder of the world, the aptly named Severn Bore.

Friends of the Earth et al advocate spending the money on wind power instead. The Severn Barrage provides power only for two four-hour periods each day, they say. I seem to recall that we had two weeks of absolute flat calm over Christmas and New Year, which would not have cooked too many gooses.

Professor Tom Simpson

School of Chemistry University of Bristol

Sexual orientation of Icelandic leader

I'm amazed at your "news" story about Iceland's new Prime Minister ("World gets its first gay head of state", 29 January). Does The Independent really believe that Johanna Sigurdardottir's sexual orientation is the most interesting fact about her?

We only get to hear about Sigurdardottir's political background, and how she will become the country's new premier during a period of extreme turbulence, after wading through a mass of information about her "lesbian union" (civil partnership), her family and her long-ago career as an air hostess.

An Icelandic government source is quoted as saying that many people didn't know she was gay, as Ms Sigurdardottir is a very private person. But for Icelanders, he says, finding out about their new prime minister's sexual orientation is no big deal. So why should it be for readers of The Independent?

Caroline Merz


More apostrophe's

I'm a member of the keep apostrophes lobby and I had a little chuckle when I saw your story about Birmingham Council's decision to abandon them on its street signs (30 January), because it sat next to an advert for "1000's of carpets".

Clive Goozee

Bournemouth, DORSET

No nuclear connection

An opinion piece on lobbying at Westminster (30 January) incorrectly stated that I am working for the nuclear industry. I do not work for the nuclear industry. I have been employed since 1997 as a Government Special Adviser. This error was contained in a quote, wrongly attributed to the Select Committee on Public Administration. Its report in fact quoted a false allegation made by Greenpeace.

Geoffrey Norris

Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, London SW1

Fashion statement

Seeing the radiant Angelina Jolie ("Angelina wears it well (even if it is the wrong way round)", 30 January), I was reminded how we fashion-conscious yet cash-strapped young women in the Sixties would wear our cardies back to front in a way we considered quite chic. Maybe a little imagination and some boldness are the way forward in these recessionary times.

Sue Young

Hatch Beauchamp Somerset

In denial

What I find so difficult to understand about Bishop Richard Williamson, the excommunicated Holocaust denier, whom the Pope has just readmitted to the Roman Catholic Church, is that he believes in the existence of God, for which there is not a scrap of hard evidence, yet dismisses the Holocaust, for which there is any amount of evidence, documented on film and in the personal accounts of survivors, as a myth.

Robert Readman

Bournemouth DORSET

A bigger democracy

Matthew Norman (Opinion, 29 January) should know that the Mother of Parliaments is not that group of buildings on the river at Westminster but the English nation.

Harvey Cole

Winchester Hampshire

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