Museum Director Frank Howarth asks "What is ‘culture’?" in this foreword to Explore magazine (summer 2011).  

What is ‘culture’? I had cause to ask this recently as part of the Museum’s input to the development of a national cultural policy. In the past, such policies have tended to equate culture with ‘the arts’, but surely culture is much broader than that.

Anthropologists have debated this question for years, but in looking for answers I came across the author Antoine Saint-Exupéry who wrote: ‘A civilisation is a heritage of beliefs, customs and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries’. He added that the outcome of these elements was justified if they lead us to reflect on our personal and collective experiences. This seems a good working description of what makes up culture.

I’ve also been reading Edmund de Waal’s extraordinary book The Hare with Amber Eyes. De Waal uses a collection of netsuke (Japanese miniature sculptures) to tell a story about several generations of his family and the cultures they lived in, from nineteenth-century Paris to Vienna under Nazism and to post-war Japan. His book illustrates the power of objects to reveal interesting stories, which to me is why we build and maintain cultural collections.

A national cultural policy then should help us to understand what makes up a picture of Australia’s own ‘heritage of beliefs, customs and knowledge’. We in museums are a key part of this picture, as are the art galleries, archives, libraries, heritage centres and historical societies that each provide pieces of the overall cultural jigsaw puzzle.

What do you think?

Frank Howarth
Director of the Australian Museum