Ring-fencing culture or ringing the changes?

When the news broke that Jane Austen’s ring, earlier purchased at an auction by Kelly Clarkson, was to remain in the UK as the result of fundraising, the response of one commentator stood out; he said that if we didn’t care about it staying in Britain, it would be like letting our culture slip away.

I wonder if this really is the case and, even if it is, what is the problem with a culture abandoning a practice or art form.

When an item intrinsic to cultural identity is forcibly removed, there is a natural uproar — even sometimes raised long after the theft. Greece has argued for the return of the Elgin Marbles, and the museum at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens has a strong visual reminder of what is missing from its exhibition, as it fills in any blanks with obvious replicas. Standing in a place where it is so clear what has been taken is striking, yet the British Museum’s display is still one of my favourite places to visit. In fact they might be best shown there, as they are looked after and subject to fewer threats from natural causes. There are strong counter-arguments to transferring the treasure, not least the huge expense and danger of their damage. Yet it is still a tricky issue, and one which can make for pretty uncomfortable consideration.

With something physical, I suppose it is easier to demand its continued presence in its cultural home. Thus the enthusiastic response to the appeal for the ring. But is it really an issue which is especially close to our public heart? One could easily retort that nobody cared enough in the first place to win the auction over the singer. If it were suggested that Austen’s novels were no longer available on this side of the Atlantic, I think the outcry would be much stronger. However, if some long forgotten element of a culture is revived across the world, and yet still dormant in its home, we would not mind so much; it would be as though we’d forfeited our rights over it by lack of use. Indeed we might be pleasantly puzzled that its merits were being valued, like if we found out S Club 7 albums were popular on Mars. Should we not be equally concerned about the traditions of a culture being slowly eroded, to make way for the new, if we react with such dismay to the news that a cultural relic is being lost immediately and through one transaction.

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In a way these issues are central to cultural relativism, a concept thought about since the time of Herodotus in the context of comparative discussion of nations. We can view shifts in cultures in a temporal sense using similar parameters, and I suppose we may well feel, like the ancient historian, a fondness for what is useful and a general feeling of ambivalence to anything else. Any attempt at maintenance of a culture involves making value judgements about what is truly important and intrinsic, which may well be impossible to decide without hindsight and a wider perspective.

I am glad that Austen’s ring has been saved, but I’m not so convinced that we can (or need to) preserve all physical manifestations of British traditions and culture so neatly as by raising £150000.