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Tiffany Jenkins asks whether museums should withhold loans to Russia.

This year, the UK-Russia Year of Culture, we are to be treated to a feast of artistic and musical treasures from Russia, while Russia will enjoy such events as a retrospective of Britart. At the same time, as part of 'India: Jewels that Enchanted the World' (until 27 July), some of the most beautiful Indian jewellery that you could ever see has been loaned to the Moscow Kremlin Museums from collections that include the V&A and the British Museum.

It is important that such loans go ahead, and that political difficulties between Russia, Europe and America do not impede the sharing of these works. But there are suggestions that loans from international museums to Russia now be terminated due to the current political situation. That would be the wrong decision: loans should continue because the arts are not an extension of the foreign office. Our museums and galleries are not here to further the goals of foreign policy, or to follow in the footsteps of government when international relationships break down.

There are good reasons for this independence. Tying loans and exhibition programmes to what is happening in the political sphere would restrict the freedom of museum directors and curators to pursue creative partnerships. It would prevent them from allowing the art and artefacts to take them in interesting directions. It would close down productive relationships between scholars from different countries, harming the experience and understanding of the visiting public. Curators, scholars, and the people of any country rarely follow the government line on every issue. Let us not act as if they do or should.

Expecting culture to reinforce political interests in such an explicit fashion expects a great deal of it. It demands that art and design act in the interests of the national government, to serve as its handmaiden. But some of the best culture in the world was created in opposition to power as much as in honour and glorification of it. What's more, the creation of culture hardly follows strict national borders, so why should its organisation? Take the bling currently on display in the Kremlin. The exquisite jewels may have been created in India, but many were influenced by European design and in time influenced it. Is the Patiala Necklace, created by Cartier for Bhupinder Singh of Patiala in 1928, French, because of who made it where, or Indian, because it was made for a ruling Maharaja?

Museums and galleries need to operate on their own terms in their own interests, and should not follow the political line of the government. That arrangement-that autonomy-benefits both the cultural and political sectors. When the argument is made in policy circles for the deliberate use of soft power, for the use of the arts in the service of ideology, my issue is not that culture has no impact at all-it does-but it is an impact that is not easily directed or harnessed in a productive fashion by those in political office. Politicians need to focus on diplomacy.

In recent times, certain museum directors have flirted with the idea that their institutions are involved in cultural diplomacy. The UK-Russia year of culture is conducted-foolishly if you ask me-with the justification of furthering cultural relations. As the press release claims, 'it aims to foster cultural exchange and the flow of ideas whilst developing stronger relations between people, institutions and governments.' This statement is now a bit of a joke, given the present state of play.

It's not hard to see why this has happened. Over-claiming for what culture can do in these economically difficult times was an easy trap to fall into. Exaggerating the possibility of soft power is seductive because it makes culture out to be essential, but it is a dangerous case to make. Promise too much and in times like these, when relations between nations are strained, the cultural sector will suffer by being called upon to sign up to national interests. The suggestion that loans are curtailed as the crisis in the Ukraine intensifies is the flip side of cultural diplomacy. Say you can act in the interests of politics in the guise of soft power, and you will be asked to. And the tables could be turned, to our loss, in a tit-for-tat battle. The fine Russian artefacts, art, and orchestras on tour could pack up and go home.

It is worth reflecting on what we might have missed, had museums and galleries followed in the path of foreign policy in the past. Exchanges and loans between the UK and Iraq, Afghanistan, and any country engaged in some form of combat with Britain, could have been curtailed. Just imagine if we only exchanged artworks with those with whom our political leaders agreed with. It would get boring pretty quickly. The arts as an instrument of foreign policy? No thanks.

Tiffany Jenkins is a sociologist and writer.
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Title Annotation:FORUM
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:May 1, 2014
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