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Blog Post | Heritage diplomacy: The case of the British Council's Cultural Protection Fund

Heritage protection is increasingly understood by nations and other actors as playing a critical intersectoral role in supporting wider development and diplomacy outcomes through soft power and cultural relations.

Recent studies link heritage diplomacy to attempts to develop reciprocal relations between countries, regions, and/or communities through heritage based on dialogue. Tuuli and Viktorija highlight Heritage diplomacy1 as a relatively new area of interest in the expanding scope of diplomacy. Heritage is seen as actively transmitting values, social norms, political ideas; establishing worldviews and power relations but also questioning them; creating dialogues and reciprocity or leading to a confrontation in or between communities. Towards an EU strategy for international cultural relations and EU’s approach to cultural heritage in conflicts and crises defines intercultural dialogue and heritage as interlinked tools to promote diplomacy outcomes. The EUNIC Cultural Relations Key Approaches in Fragile Contexts report highlights culture can find a good entry point inthe contemporary notions of ‘peace’, which are increasingly connected to development and social justice, and go beyond a binary opposition of conflict and peace:

“Cultural aspects intersect in several ways with this understanding of conflict they may be used to undermine security and stability, but they can also provide early warnings of conflict, serve as a coping mechanism, foster cohesion, etc.” 2

Heritage diplomacy is commonly defined by referring to Winter’s notion of it as modes of commemorating and communicating the past to shape international relations (Winter 2015). These definitions theorise two approaches: ‘heritage in diplomacy’ and ‘heritage as diplomacy’.3

Through ‘heritage in diplomacy’, Winter refers to heritage initiatives that are coordinated as part of diplomatic actions that do not depend on the notion of mutual or shared heritage as a mediator of relations, but rather ‘highlight the various ways in which heritage figures into existing diplomatic ties and policy structure built around trade, the bonds of colonialism, conflict or other strategic alliances’ (Winter 2015). This first type of heritage in diplomacy’ focuses on endangered, internationally recognised, and highly symbolic heritage sites that offer international donors diplomatic visibility and opportunities for image-building as concerned actors and supporters of ‘universal’ values of heritage.

The ‘heritage as diplomacy’ approach draws on fostering shared heritage and building connectivity by identifying shared pasts such as through taking a cultural relations approach. This second type may be considered less spectacular, as it focuses on communities and their intangible cultural heritage to ‘open up the past and make it work for communities traumatised by conflict’ (Chalcraft 2021).


The British Council's Cultural Protection Fund set up in partnership with The UK’s Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, supports efforts to keep cultural heritage sites and objects safe, as well as the recording, conservation and restoration of heritage. The fund aims to help create sustainable opportunities for economic and social development through building capacity to foster, safeguard and promote cultural heritage.

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The external evaluation of the Fund found across stakeholder groups, consultees highlighted that CPF is considered to have been pioneering in bringing heritage protection out of the cultural connection sphere, and into the development, political and diplomatic domain, as Chalraft (2021) highlights:

“The British Council’s CPF is careful, a soft power supporting varied kinds of heritage-making. It gains legitimacy from providing assistance to heritage practitioners in post-conflict countries with no explicit requirement for foreign expert involvement.” 4

The evaluation found the Fund has a role to play in solving international issues, linked to peace and security objectives through heritage protection:

“Viewed through the lens of UK diplomacy, evidence suggests that the Fund has become a valued tool in the toolbox of local HMG missions. It is a diplomatic ice-breaker, it helps to open ministerial doors and supports the strengthening of UK government-to government relations.” 5

Heritage diplomacy can open up pathways for more complex political diplomacy as it is a way of kickstarting wider diplomatic dialogues around climate change and international development including through the G20 and COP26.

Whilst many international heritage projects involve high-visibility restorations, the Cultural Protection Fund funds projects that tackle less quantifiable aspects: intangible heritage, community cohesion, religiously sensitive practices. This echoes the development-focused criteria used during the evaluations of potential projects by the Cultural Protection Fun, which is linked to the OECD Evaluation Official Development Assistance criteria. Think of whether proposed projects deliver on clear development goals, whether they stand to generate benefit to local communities, and therefore whether there is engagement with and buy-in from those communities.

In summary, we are seeing an increase in the use of heritage diplomacy being deployed by a range of countries taking a range of approaches from a cultural relations approach to a soft power approach. Heritage diplomacy is transitioning from countries aiming to undertake competitive standing out diplomacy based around an soft power approach to reaching out diplomacy through a mutually beneficial cultural relations approach.  The key to understanding the cultural relations and soft power processes lies in connecting the approaches to cultural preservation with issues such as community, values, and development and how this creates an enabling environment for exploring people-to-people connectivity, reciprocal cooperation, mutual trust and shared values (Thomas 2020).6

Ian Thomas is Head of Evidence for Arts at the British Council in the UK.

1. Tuuli Lähdesmäki & Viktorija L. A. Čeginskas (2022) Conceptualisation of heritage diplomacy in scholarship, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 28:5, 635-650, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2022.2054846

2. EUNIC (2021)  Key Approaches in Fragile Contexts Report highlights the role of culture and cultural relations: A report by Jordi Baltà (Trànsit Projectes) on behalf of EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture), the British Council and the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) https://www.eunicglobal.eu/news/cultural-relations-key-approaches-in-fragile-contexts-report-available

3. Winter, T. (2015) Heritage diplomacy, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 21:10, 997-1015, https://doi.org/ 10.1080/13527258.2015.1041412

4. Chalcraft, J. (2021). Into the Contact Zones of Heritage Diplomacy: Local Realities, Transnational Themes and International Expectations. International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-020-09391-3

5. British Council (2021) Evaluating the impact of the Cultural Protection Fund  https://www.britishcouncil.org/arts/culture-development/evaluating-impact-cultural-protection-fund

6. Thomas, I. (2020). Building an Impact Evaluation Toolbox based on an Arts and Soft Power Ecosystem. [online] USC Centre on Public Diplomacy. Available at: https://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/story/new-perspectives-evaluation-toolbox-cultural-diplomacy

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