British academy

Cultural and Intellectual Enrichment

How do the arts, humanities and social sciences contribute to our cultural and intellectual enrichment?

Summary of main findings:

The arts, humanities and social sciences

  • lead directly to numerous forms of cultural performance, exhibition and enlightenment, both through teaching and research
  • provide crucial expertise to support museum and gallery collections, as well as the historic environment
  • lead the way in promoting understanding of other cultures, religions and societies, thereby helping to sustain multicultural tolerance and interaction
  • foster public debate and enhance public engagement with the complexities of modern life, especially those which involve conflicting moralities, traditions and beliefs
  • through their commitment to analytical rigour and humane values are crucial to civic virtues and to open, accessible government, on which any civilised society depends.

Cultural activities – performance, exhibition and enlightenment

4. Today's society is measured by the quality of its cultural life. Directly or through their students, academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences have made a great contribution to our cultural and intellectual well-being as these subjects help us to understand our heritage and culture, and that of others. Classics, for example, plays an important part in what it means to be British and to be European, since Greece and Rome are an important part of British heritage in particular and of the European heritage in general. In the past British and European literature, architecture and painting drew widely on classical themes. In today's world these themes are additionally used in cinema and television. Subjects in the arts and humanities help us to understand what is distinctive about our own culture and how to place it within a wider context.

5. Teaching and research activities undertaken in the arts contribute directly to activities such as art exhibitions, concerts, theatrical performances, festivals and literary productions. These not only enrich our lives, but also generate important consumer products.

The MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia was established to enable aspiring writers to learn and develop their craft. The course led the way for other institutions to develop similar courses.2 Early students were Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. McEwan's writing career spans nine novels, two collections of short stories and three screenplays for which he has won several prizes including the Whitbread Prize for Fiction and the Booker Prize. Similarly, Ishiguro won the Whitbread Award for Fiction in 1986 and the Booker Prize in 1989. In 2001, half the runners-up for the Booker Prize had a UEA connection. This tradition of turning students into published writers continues. For instance, Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring has been translated into 26 languages and is a huge bestseller: in America alone 130,000 hardback copies plus 1.3 million paperbacks have been sold. Film rights have been sold and the film is due to be released in England in January 2004.3

6. Researchers in the arts and humanities contribute to culture at many different levels. For instance, the research undertaken by scholars in a wide range of fields to analyse and reinterpret Shakespeare has done much to sustain and enrich public interest in his work. This not only enhances cultural vitality but can be of significant financial value, spanning not just the revenues made by the RSC and from tourism in Stratford, or by the Globe Theatre in London, but also those arising from publishing, media activity, educational products and the wider heritage industry.

The Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham has a close relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Over the' years, the Institute's Directors and Fellows have been General Editors of the New Penguin, the New Cambridge, the Oxford and the Arden electronic editions of Shakespeare. The annual Shakespeare Survey (Cambridge University Press) is edited by two of the Institute's former Directors.

7. These activities can be especially important at local and regional levels. For instance, research and teaching in the fields of literature, history, music and film often play a vital part in enhancing the role of the host city or region as a local centre of culture. This in turn helps to develop a sense of local identity and a community's self-image. Literature, history, music, art, film and drama departments in universities often have active links with local and national cultural events and organisations. For example, there are close links between the Department of Drama and Theatre Studies at Lancaster University and the Nuffield Theatre, and there are similar links between departments of contemporary art practice and theatre festivals at Nottingham Trent University, Manchester University, and Warwick University.

The School of English and American Studies at the University of Nottingham hosts the Media Archive for Central England (a repository for images which are studied by scholars, and used in all forms of media, educational or entertaining). Research projects on the role of local cinema inform the understanding – and the promotion – of urban regeneration. Local arts activities (e.g. exhibitions, literary festivals, poetry readings, the Nottingham 'Culture Club', film festivals and screenings) are recognised as having an effect upon social exclusion, property development, local politics, the attraction of new businesses, tourism and food tourism. They clearly help to enhance the economic prosperity of the region.

8. Academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences disseminate their work through radio and television, locally and nationally, feeding the national appetite for popular but well-informed history, political comment, literary adaptations and reviews, and musical performance. For example, the dramadocumentary broadcast on BBC One on 20 October 2003, 'Pompeii: the Last Day', was informed by Roman historians such as Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, and drew an audience of 9.5 million. Broadcasters often complement these programmes with online activity. The BBC has launched a new World War Two web site, to supplement forthcoming programmes such as 'Dunkirk' (February 2004) and the 60th anniversary of D-Day (June 2004). The web site encourages audiences to write their own personal wartime memories, and the BBC hopes that it will become a significant national archive of people's history.

Professor Steven Mithen, an archaeologist at the University of Reading, contributes notably to widening public access to the latest discoveries and theories of in his field. He has recently appeared on Melvyn Bragg's Radio 4 programme In our time to discuss the nature of human creativity, filmed contributions to BBC TV science/archaeology programmes Road to Riches, Ape Man, Brain Story, Testing God, Ice World, and was consultant on Walking with Cavemen. His 1996 book The Prehistory of the Mind achieved academic praise and also entered the science best-seller lists.

Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art and Chairman of Arts Council England, has been a major pioneer in the study of popular culture and a tireless advocate of the importance of design both as a cultural force and an economic driver. He is also well known for the contributions he has made to TV and radio as a presenter, writer and critic. Professor Sir Christopher Frayling won an award at the New York Film and Television Festival for a six-part Channel 4 series about advertising, The Art of Persuasion. At the Royal College of Art, he promoted joint postgraduate courses with the Victoria and Albert Museum (Design History), Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (Conservation), and the Arts Council and Tate (Curating Contemporary Art). He was recently awarded the Sir Misha Black Memorial Medal 2003 for Distinguished Services to Design Education in recognition of his influence as a cultural historian.

9. It has long been recognised that the arts and humanities are an important tool in enabling disadvantaged and marginalised people and communities to find new means of expression. Improvements in education and employment opportunities often result.

Manchester Metropolitan University's Faculty of Art and Design runs a programme called START 3D Design. START is a project using art practice to develop interpersonal skills and promote general personal development for people suffering from mental health problems. Many of these students move on from START into employment which would not have been possible otherwise.

10. The arts and humanities also bring personal fulfilment. For instance, research findings have shown that many of the most intense emotions experienced by people come from their engagement with music. This engagement has a wide variety of positive effects on development, socialisation, and intellectual activity.

Providing high-level expertise for the arts and heritage sectors

Museums and galleries

11. The arts, humanities and social sciences provide the expertise to understand, explain, manage and conserve museum and gallery collections, and in so doing contribute directly to the social and cultural well-being of the nation. Malcolm Cooper, Regional Director of English Heritage, states: 'The heritage sector employs a high proportion of humanities graduates in subjects such as art history, archaeology, geography, history, and planning'.

12. University museums and collections are a key part of the UK's Museum provision. There are 73 University Museums and Collections, including major designated museums/collections at Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Reading and London. The Ashmolean in Oxford was the first 'public' museum in the UK. The relationship between academic research, teaching in a wide variety of arts and humanities disciplines, curation, collection care and stewardship, and the wider public education and cultural functions of these facilities should not be underestimated. University museums and collections are an important means of disseminating the latest developments in research. They also provide a focus for high-level education in a range of scholarly and curatorial skills. These engagements help to sustain the international reputation of the UK's museums and galleries which are highly regarded for the quality and range of their collections, and for the research-based, technical and curatorial skills of museum and gallery professionals.

The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) Research Centre for Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies4 brings together two universities and one of the most powerful cultural institutions in the country: Tate. Research, study days and workshops are being targeted towards the Tate's own collection, and are geared to a variety of different audiences from general public to postgraduate students. The Centre is working to produce a catalogue of Tate's surrealist holdings which will go onto the web and a database of all holdings of dada and surrealist works in public collections in the UK. It also aims to make it easier for the public to access a number of key surrealist writings which have never been translated.

The AHRB Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior5 aims to provide a forum for high-level, cross-disciplinary research into the changing character of the domestic interior in Europe and North America from 1400 to present. Its staff are drawn from the fields of art history, history, musicology and English literature. The Centre has organised a series of symposia and conferences, drawing contributions from scholars in a wide range of international universities and museums, and publications arising from these events are planned. It has also used its partnership with the V&A Museum to contribute to major exhibitions at the Museum (e.g. Art Deco, 1910'1939 (March'July 2003), and will do so for Modernism in Autumn 2006 and The Renaissance At Home in 2006). Such exhibitions in a major venue for design and the decorative arts bring the Centre's work to a wide public in a context in which informal and lifelong learning are as important as more conventional forms of knowledge transfer.

The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture at the University of Exeter6 contains both a public museum and an academic research centre, housing one of Britain's biggest public collections of books, prints, artefacts and ephemera relating to the history and prehistory of cinema. It holds the largest film archive outside the British Film Institute, serving both national and international researchers and audiences.

13. A number of important economic and social benefits flow from this relationship. Museums and galleries have a clear link with education – it is seen as central to the mission of UK museums and galleries. Museums and galleries provide a key resource for schools. School pupils are the section of the population (37 per cent) most likely to attend a museum or gallery, and 29 per cent of schoolchildren believe that a museum is 'the best place to learn out of school.'7 An example of how informed arts, humanities and social science activity can extend the awareness of our cultural heritage, as well as create socially relevant material for use in general education and heritage areas is shown below.

Over the past four years the SAPPHIRE project (Scottish Archive of Print and Publishing History Records)8 has undertaken two major projects investigating the social history of the Scottish print and publishing industry. The project, which is run jointly by several universities and heritage organisations, has created and funded posts to undertake project research and development resulting in permanent and touring exhibitions, learning packs for schools, popular and academic publications and contributed to community development work in Edinburgh and its environs.

14. It is acknowledged that museums raise public awareness of their entire community, and can integrate, represent and promote wider community perspectives, potentially developing greater social cohesion.9 By collecting and exhibiting objects and artefacts of relevance to a particular community, they help these people to take pride in their past, as well as stimulating learning about aspects of communities that have perhaps been marginalised or ignored.

The Historic Environment

15. The Planning Minister, Keith Hill, recently said: ‘The historic environment makes a vital contribution to the quality of everyone's life and is central to our sense of local, regional and national identity. At the moment we have an ambitious challenge to build dynamic, sustainable communities across the country – but that's not just about new build alone. We need to make sure we conserve those historic places which give our towns and cities their uniqueness and character.’ Subjects such as archaeology, history, geography and planning help to safeguard against the unwitting destruction of important evidence about the past and present environment.

The Kircaldy burgh survey – ‘Historic Kircaldy’ was prepared by the Centre for Scottish Urban History at the University of Edinburgh. It is a blueprint of the historical, archaeological and geographical environment of the Fife burgh and is intended primarily for use by planners and regional archaeologists. The main aim of the survey is to identify those areas of the present and historic burgh which are of archaeological interest and require sensitive treatment in the event of proposed development. The survey is also available in book form and is available to schools, local historians and other interested residents of the town.

16. The term 'historic environment' is used to cover all the historic aspects of the environment that have been created through the cultural and economic activities of the people who settled the land: archaeological sites, historical landscapes, standing buildings, parks and gardens and so on. In a recent report the National Trust stated:10 ‘The historic environment is not just about the past – it is about the present and the future. It is the countryside, village, town or city in which we live, work or choose to visit, and can be what gives a place a character, shapes our perceptions and gives people a sense of place and identity in a changing world. It is also an important educational resource for both children and adults, can generate income and employment through tourism and marketing, and can contribute to our quality of life.’

17. A MORI survey in 2000 found that 76 per cent of people thought that their lives were richer for having the opportunity to visit or view the historic environment, and 88 per cent believed that it was important in creating jobs and boosting the economy.11 Subjects such as history and archaeology clearly have enormous economic potential here. They also spread the economic spending potential of tourism, and dilute its potentially detrimental impacts, by attracting tourists from the cities to the countryside.

The Iron Bridge, spanning the River Severn at Ironbridge in Shropshire, is universally recognised as a potent symbol of the Industrial Revolution. The establishment of the Ironbridge Gorge museums and associated Trust showed that with imagination and skill, a whole historic landscape could be conserved and managed for the benefit of residents and visitors, and interpreted as primary evidence of the Industrial Revolution. As a mark of these achievements, the Ironbridge Gorge was inscribed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in November 1986. In 2001, tourism spend totalled '16 million and had created 15,000 jobs in the Ironbridge Gorge. The Ironbridge Institute, a partnership between the University of Birmingham and the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust, builds on this experience of heritage management to provide postgraduate courses in heritage management and industrial archaeology. Staff at the Institute are frequently asked for advice on issues such as the designation of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the appropriateness of proposed museum developments.

18. The historic environment is vulnerable to damage and loss. The work by archaeologists in mapping and analysing ensures that the significance of sites or buildings are fully understood, so that they can be properly managed and conserved. According to the Archaeology Training Forum (ATF), there are about 4,425 archaeologists working in about 614 organisations, and ATF research has indicated growth in employment in the sector. Of these, 644 work in 72 HEIs; 1,341 work for archaeological contractors; 680 for national heritage agencies and 605 as local government curators. These professionals have close ties with the work of the academic research community. English Heritage is the national archaeology service for England and it also funds a number of scientific specialists based in UK HEIs. This sector is therefore underpinned by research and scholarship undertaken by subjects in the arts.

Professor Roberta Gilchrist is Professor of Medieval Archaeology at the University of Reading, and for the past ten years has also been Archaeologist to Norwich Cathedral, with responsibility for all aspects of archaeology within the 42-acre precinct. She is closely involved with conservation and development projects at the cathedral totalling several million pounds, including a £10 million visitor and education centre currently under construction. She advises the cathedral chapter and works with teams of architects, engineers, archaeologists and conservators. The results of her fieldwork and research are published for an international audience, but also inform local planning decisions and educational programmes. Norwich Cathedral is a major heritage attraction; with 500,000 annual visitors, it contributes substantially to the economic, social and spiritual well-being of the region.

The Silchester Town Life project was established by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading in 1997. The project is both a training field school and a research excavation located in the heart of Calleva Atrebatum, a major Roman civitas capital situated in the heart of the modern Hampshire village of Silchester. The excavation is tracing the Iron Age origins, subsequent Roman development and eventual abandonment of about one third of Insula IX, believed to have been a part of the commercial and residential part of the town. As well as providing a focus for academic research and archaeological fieldwork training, the site holds popular public open days. Hampshire County Council promotes The Silchester Town Trail as a visitor attraction, which follows the entire circuit of the complete Roman town walls. Finds from earlier digs at Silchester are displayed in the Silchester Gallery which was opened at the Museum of Reading in 1995.

Promoting an understanding of other cultures, religions and societies

19. The arts, humanities and social sciences are clearly crucial for promoting that measure of understanding which is necessary for a peaceful, tolerant and religiously diverse society. A wide range of subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences make direct contributions in this way.

20. For instance, it has been argued that, ‘the issues of racism and xenophobia in contemporary Germany can only be understood in the context of a longer understanding of twentieth-century German History, including historic patterns of citizenship entitlement, the tensions between East and West Germans following unification in 1990, and the ways in which Germans sought to 'overcome' both the Nazi past and the more recent communist dictatorship.’12 At the opposite end of the historical spectrum, it has been observed that one particular strength of prehistory in education is that ‘it deals with the history of our species in terms of global rather than national cultures, and the similarities and diversities of human experience within our common historical trajectory worldwide: the peopling of the globe at the time of the most hostile environments ever faced by our species, the ensuing global change from hunting-gathering to farming, and then the rise of civilisations and empires in all continents.’13 Thus prehistory plays an important role in building mutual cultural awareness and tolerance since it emphasises 'our common humanity'.

21. The interplay between the arts, humanities and social sciences addresses many of these issues. For instance, an MA in Refugee Studies at the University of East London draws on cultural studies, law and social sciences, and provides an academic knowledge and appreciation of the context, problems and policy issues related to the growing global problem of 'forced migration' confronting many professional and voluntary sector workers. Another example of the role of the arts and the social sciences in addressing such issues is that of the work of the political theorist, Professor Lord Parekh, who has done so much to defend, and think through the requirements for, genuine equality amongst British citizens of different racial origins. Professor Lord Parekh has been prominent in the public life of both Britain and India, notably as Deputy Chair, Commission for Racial Equality 1985–90 and Chair, Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain.

22. In the arts and humanities, the study of languages and literature provides not only knowledge of other cultures, but also insights into UK society and culture as well. It is our view that any form of bilingualism can assist in the making of a more tolerant, pluralistic society. Similarly, few cultures can be understood without reference to their religious and spiritual traditions. Professor Jorgen Nielsen has said: ‘Time and again one has seen both in the UK and elsewhere how, when religion is ignored it reappears to strike back from unexpected directions’.14

23. The way in which university teaching and research in this field can have an impact on the local community is demonstrated by the BA in Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham. This programme has extensive links with the local Muslim community from which the majority of its students come. Many of its graduates have gone on to become teachers both in community and mainstream schools.

Foster public debate and enhance public engagement

Encouraging public debate

24. Many academics have helped to stimulate and encourage rational debate in the media about matters of public concern. Their contributions to major reports and debates about cultural and social matters, especially via press, TV and radio programmes on all aspects of intellectual and academic enquiry, have been significant in shifting national and international agendas.

The 2002 Reith Lectures 'A Question of Trust' by the philosopher, Baroness Onora O'Neill, sparked a wide debate on accountability and trust, especially in the public sector, the professions and the voluntary sector. They showed that criticism of target setting, performance indicators and certain forms of 'transparency' were well grounded, and that the supposed crisis of trust followed logically from the introduction of these supposed remedies. In the subsequent year, Baroness O'Neill promoted discussion of more effective forms of accountability, especially among professional groups and the public sector.15 Her research in ethics and political philosophy was developed and presented in forms which numerous audiences recognised as relevant to their concerns.

25. A further example is the way in which the media have used the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) as a source of informed, impartial comment on fiscal matters. The IFS is renowned for its economic analysis of the UK tax system and considers the likely impact of fiscal policy on all parts of the UK's population. Academics at the IFS regularly brief MPs and civil servants and hold meetings with Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet Members.

Fostering public understanding of scientific and technological advances

26. When scientific knowledge comes into the public domain it is often presented in conjunction with ethical and judicial considerations, and quality of life measures, all of which are the product of research in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The importance of placing technological and scientific developments within a social and cultural context is becoming generally accepted. Recent public concerns about developments such as GM crops demonstrate the importance of mediating scientific discoveries through the arts, humanities and social sciences. The debate about genetically modified crops cannot be based simply on scientific evidence about their benefits and negative effects. It also needs to take into account public perceptions of food safety and quality are constructed. This is a topic well within the domain of the arts, humanities and social sciences.

27. Scholars working in fields such as the History of Science and Medicine are able to place contemporary concerns about medical and scientific advances in a historical context. For example, the recent crisis over the MMR vaccine has led to an increase in academic interest in vaccination, as well as a wider debate about the public understanding of the risks and benefits of mass childhood immunisation. Historical findings point to ways in which current policy-makers can learn from the past,16 drawing on the history of immunisation measures.

28. The arts, humanities and social sciences also analyse the way in which people learn from the media, not least by monitoring and assessing the ways in which past scientific developments have been presented by the media and understood by the public. A recent example is the work of Professor Hargreaves, Professor Lewis and Tammy Speers,17 whose findings suggested that the presence of more scientists or science specialists was unlikely to increase the public understanding of science, or to generate public engagement.

The promotion of civic virtues

29. There is a strong tradition of British work in political science and political education. The British Election Surveys, started by David Butler and Donald Stokes in 1963, continue to contribute to political behaviour as well as political understanding. Falling levels of electoral participation allied to related concerns about social cohesion and social exclusion have given this tradition a new currency and also opened up new directions of citizenship related work in the arts, humanities and social sciences. In most Western countries, levels of trust in politicians have dropped over the past years. Fewer people turn out to vote, and political apathy is said to be most marked among the young. In addition, constitutional reform and devolved government are changing the relationship between local, regional and national government in ways which may impact on political participation.

30. Academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences are active in addressing these concerns. For instance, the e-government project conducted at University College London and LSE is intended to contribute to the accessibility of government to citizens and its effectiveness. Another example is the work of the sociologist, Professor Nikolas Rose, whose innovative method of analysing political power and social regulation in advanced liberal democracies has been used by researchers worldwide.

31. Subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences also make a substantial contribution to the moral health of society. For instance the study of law has had an important impact on the development of a human rights culture. This is illustrated by the publication, Human Rights, the 1998 Act and the European Convention,18 which is helpful to students and academics alike because it brings together three aspects of the subject which are not normally treated in one volume: the constitutional dimension of incorporating the Convention rights; an analysis of the Human Rights Act itself, set against the relevant domestic law background; and a detailed discussion of the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights itself. Similarly, it might be argued that the publications on gender and sexuality by scholars such as Professor Germaine Greer, Professor Juliet Mitchell, Professor Sheila Rowbotham, Professor Lynne Segal and Professor Jeffrey Weeks have set the agenda for an understanding and redefinition of masculinity and femininity within modern society.


  1. There are now over 30 postgraduate MA and PhD programmes in creative writing available in the UKas well as 279 undergraduate courses in which creative writing is a key component. [return to text]
  2. Example drawn from a case study prepared by Debbie Hicks. [return to text]
  3. The University of Essex, the University of Manchester, and Tate are partners in the AHRB Research Centre for Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies. It was established in June 2002. [return to text]
  4. The Centre was established in September 2001. It brings together the Royal College of Art, a totally postgraduate Art and Design institution; the Victoria and Albert Museum, the national museum of design and the decorative arts, and a major History faculty from a traditional university, Royal Holloway, University of London. [return to text]
  5. The Bill Douglas Centre opened to the public in autumn 1997 as part of the British celebrations of the centenary of cinema. [return to text]
  6. Visitors to Museums and Galleries in the UK, MORI for RESOURCE, 2001. [return to text]
  7. SAPPHIRE is a consortium with Napier University, University of Edinburgh as the lead institution, and Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, as its collaborative partner.[return to text]
  8. For an example of this view, see the report entitled Releasing the Potential: The Case for the Cultural Services. [return to text]
  9. Archaeology and the Historic Environment, Historic Landscape Survey Guidelines, The National Trust. [return to text]
  10. Power of Place, English Heritage, 2000. [return to text]
  11. Professor Mary Fulbrook, Professor of German History, University College London. [return to text]
  12. Professor Graeme Barker, President of the Prehistoric Society.
    [return to text]
  13. Professor Jorgen Nielsen, Director, Graduate Institute for Theology and Religion in the Department of Theology at the University of Birmingham. [return to text]
  14. Baroness Onora O'Neill gave numerous keynote speeches, lectures and talks to the public sector, professional and charitable and corporate bodies and political groupings ranging from Actuaries to Public Health Physicians; Insurance CEOs to University administrators; Teachers to Psychoanalysts; Education and Medical Charities; Church groups and wider publics. [return to text]
  15. For example, see paper by Ms Pru Hobson-West: Resistance to vaccination in England: Science, history and risk. [return to text]
  16. Professor Ian Hargreaves, Professor Justin Lewis and Tammy Speers, Towards a better Map: Science, the public, and the Media, ESRC, 2003. [return to text]
  17. Duffy P, Grosz S, Beatson J, Sedley D, Human Rights: the 1998 Act and the European Convention, Sweet and Maxwell, 1999. [return to text]