Memo October 2016


A memo sent to correspondents, friends and acquaintances of the Budapest Observatory (BO) in October 2016

Apologies for an unusually verbose newsletter.

Culture and democracy

“Democracy is a complex concept that needs to be deconstructed, and the impact of culture must be analysed with regard to specific constituents” – BO wrote at thinking about the impact of culture on democracy, in preparation to the 10th (latest) Council of Europe conference of ministers of culture in Moscow in 2013. The sketch on page 12 of the paper is an embryonic variant of the table on pages 13-14 of the guidebook to a brave and huge initiative.

The indicator framework on culture and democracy was launched in October. We are eager to interact with the online version when it gets publicly available in 2017. It is expected to function like the Better Life Index of the OECD, except for a strong cultural focus.

BO is keen to know how – besides cultural circles – political scientists will find the Hertie School attempt to define and operationalise democracy.

Culture and illiberalism

One aspect of culture’s impact on democracy is tackling the rise of undemocratic trends. Yes, but how? This was the subject of the talk given to the participants of the cultural policy course held by the European Academy of the Yuste Foundation.

Sets of heritage label

Yuste is a monastery in Extremadura, where Charles V lived after abdicating in 1556. This explains the eminent position of the place between holders of Spain’s European heritage labels.

The four Spanish items figure among the 64 European labels selected by 18 member states of the EU before 2010. But then, a 2011 decision upgraded the concept and a new list began. This latter currently comprises 29 sites from 24 countries. Several sites appear on both lists because they were re-assessed according to the new criteria but not deleted from the old list. (Yuste is missing from the 29.)

The birth of the label gave rise to doubts and criticism (not only on our part) but the revised scheme appears to have handled most of the concerns. The process is transparent, the reports provide assessments about both accepted and rejected candidates. Accent is made on the way the sites are managed. Still, the programme has not yet become a real success.

It is definitely popular in our part of the world, twelve from the 29 sites are in a post-communist country (four in Poland). Yet four EU countries do not take part, including Britain, saving the EU from the dilemma whether they can keep the label after the UK has left. Unfortunately, they will take also their enviable habits of democratic public decision making, as for instance how they displayed the label issue here and here.

Set of routes

More successful is the Council of Europe programme on cultural routes. There are 31 of them, quite diverse by content, ranging from the pious to the profane, carefully managed, worth keeping them in mind at the design of various cultural projects (including the candidates).

The focus of the majority of routes is in the west but some are rooted in the east like the route of St Martin, born 1700 years ago. Also here is one that does not even leave BO remit. And there is Charles V, with one of the best own sites, dedicating stations at and around Yuste.

Sets of attractions

Both Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet recommend Yuste, which takes us back to last month’s exercise about cultural attractions. These two agencies cover all the 19 capital cities with their standard methods. Tripadvisor collects visitor reviews while Lonely Planet (LP) presents curated advice, done by their guide book authors. Both ways are subjective, but in different manner. We checked our Tripadvisor findings against the LP offers. As the latter usually presents nine “sights” on the front page (see e.g. Minsk), we took nine where they were sorted as “top experiences” and “sights” (e.g. Warsaw), and compared them with the first nine items on the Tripadvisor lists.

We found more differences than parallels. In three out of the nineteen cases were the Nr.1 attractions the same:

  • The Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia
  • The Ethnographic Museum in Pristina and
  • Bunk Art in Tirana

In no case did the two lists of nine contain more than half from the other list; four was the most, in six cities. In Bratislava, Sarajevo and Vilnius the two top nine lists had one common members only – do these three cities really feature such a divergent variety of attractions?

Tripadvisor tourists recalled the greatest number of cultural attractions in Tallinn – so does the LP author, naming five collections among the nine top sights. Five cultural items appear in the LP pages of Sarajevo and Skopje, more than on their respective Tripadvisor top thirties. On the whole, the Lonely Planet recommends culture in much greater numbers than what Tripadvisor comments do.   

(The information is from September-October 2016. Tourism advice is an ephemeral genre.)

Capitals of culture

BO is delighted that in 2021 Novi Sad will be the second European Capital of Culture in a candidate country (after Istanbul in 2010). Equally glad about Timișoara, where BO witnessed the first steps on the long road. The two cities will hopefully capitalise from their proximity and shared cultural legacy.

Culture and refugees

One more reason for joy is the tremendous interest that the call for cultural projects to help the integration of refugees has met with. Out of the 274 applications the European Commission finances the best twelve.

Not surprisingly, from the three Baltic countries we find only nine among the 1127 organisations that appear in the 274 bids (while from Albania there were eight); and from the four Visegrad countries only 56 (while from Slovenia there were 46). Yet surprisingly, within the Visegrad group the largest number of applicants came from the country where anti-migrant noise is the greatest, from Hungary.

One can only guess about the content of the twelve projects by the titles, but they appear to be very much in line with what the Yuste talk is about.

Compendium and summit

Most participants of this year’s assembly of Compendium authors also attended the world culture summit held in Malta too. Ironically, besides the rich offering the greatest excitement was caused by the absence of the programme director from most of the summit. She was busy taking up her job as minister of culture in Croatia.

At least two culture ministers with substantial international experience may attend the next culture council reunion of the European Union on 21-22 November, one from Bucharest and one from Zagreb.

Come to Budapest

Save the date (as the saying goes) for the Culture Action Europe conference on 26-28 January in Budapest. You may also meet the editors of this memo.