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National Cultural Canons as a Cultural Policy Response to Globalisation?

By Peter Duelund

Discussions on identity, the nation-state and cultural policy as well as questions addressing globalisation and nationalism are often presented as closely interrelated. Everywhere in the world people are protesting the de-territorialising effects of globalisation and call for a revitalisation of nationalism as a defence against a possible loss of identity. Strengthening national or social cohesion as an answer to migration and multicultural challenges is argued as vitally important in the current national debates on social and cultural issues.

The national dimension of cultural policy has been strengthened in recent years. In Great Britain, the New Labour and political movements on the left proposed 'progressive nationalism' as a response to the cultural policies of Anglo-Saxon conservatives and their nationalist investments in social and cultural discussions. France gave birth to a new Ministry for Immigration and National Identity. Poland witnessed the creation of a new national self-awareness built on its Catholic faith. In Serbia, radical neo-nationalist movements have been nourished by myths and propelled by demands to legitimise the return of lost territories.

At the same time, the increasing importance of the link between identity and nation within defined borders has generated protests both in majority populations and in ethnic minority groups. In Turkey several hundred thousand people participated in protests because they fear a resuscitation of Islamic nationalism. 2006 saw one of the most severe crises in post-war Danish foreign policy when a newspaper published caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed causing violent reactions among the faithful. Fire was set to the Danish embassy in Damascus, the Danish flag was burned in public, there was a boycott of Danish commodities throughout the Arab world and official protests from Arab foreign offices were sent to Copenhagen. The Danish premier minister appeared on Arab TV in an attempt to make it clear that the publication of the drawings did not constitute a violation of religious rights but was an expression of the right to free speech in a secular democracy.

Against this background, national cultural canons are being introduced as a cultural policy response to globalisation, immigration, multiculturalism, cultural relativism and as a means to revitalise national identity and social cohesion.

For example, in April 2005, the Danish Minister of Culture, Brian Mikkelsen, appointed 7 canon committees corresponding to the 7 main art forms within the Ministry's remit: literature, music, performing arts, film, architecture, visual arts, design and crafts. These committees were responsible for selecting works to be included in the Danish Cultural Canon (

The Danish Cultural Canon was published and circulated by the Ministry in 2006- 2007. It was created as "a collection and presentation of the greatest, most important works of Denmark's cultural heritage". It's purpose was to:

  • serve as a compass showing the directions and milestones in Denmark's long and complex cultural history; 
  • serve as a platform for discussion and debate;
  • give us reference points and awareness of what is special about Danes and Denmark in an ever more globalised world; and
  • strengthen the sense of community by showing key parts of our common historical possessions.

The Danish Cultural Canon was first published as a book with a DVD and CD ROM and was distributed free of charge to all primary & lower secondary schools (Folkeskole), upper secondary schools (Gymnasium), and business colleges (Handelsskoler) in Denmark. It was also distributed to adult learning centres (VUC), high schools (Højskoler) and some higher education institutions. At the same time, the book is for sale (DKK 99). In total, 175,000 copies have been printed, 150,000 of which will be distributed free to libraries, etc.

In order to ensure that the Canon project reached all interested citizens, especially young people, the Danish Ministry for Culture launched an online publication of the entire work on: In 2008, the Danish Cultural Canon consisted of 108 works spread over nine different art forms. Each committee compiled a canon comprising 12 Danish works of art. An exception was made for the music field which includes a list of 24 works: 12 popular music and 12 scores. A Danish Canon for Children's Culture consisting of 12 works, aimed specifically at children, was also published.

In other countries, such as the Netherlands, the Dutch Cultural Canon ( was launched in 2006, shedding many years of a predominantly multiculturalists perspective. The Canon project was initiated as a response to a charge that all segments of the population suffered from a lack of knowledge of the nation's history and culture. The Minister of Education, Culture and Science established the Van Oostrom Commission to provide advice on the shape and content of the Canon.

In the same year, the Dutch Service for International Cultural Activities (SICA) and the European Network of National Cultural Institutes (EUNIC) organised a discussion around the idea of creating a European Cultural Canon. The aim was to initiate a discussion on the cultural policy potential and implications of such a project, to address questions of whether it is desirable from a political and artistic point of view and to determine its consequences for Europe.

More recently, the Latvian Ministry of Culture launched a Cultural Canon project in 2008 to foster the establishment of common cultural values.

The rise of national cultural canons leads to a number of general as well as specific scientific and political issues relating to identity, nationalism and cultural policies in Europe that will require new theoretical and empirical frameworks of inquiry. Many questions arise as to the inclusiveness of these canons as well as the background of those who are building them. What will be the effects of such canons in the future? Are they a threat to diversity or a tool to promote cohesion?

Additional information on this topic can be found in the new book from the Boekman Foundation:

Ineke van Hamersveld and Athur Sonnen (eds.): Identifying with Europe - Reflections on a Historical and Cultural Canon for Europe. Amsterdam: Boekmanstudies, EUNIC Netherlands and SICA, 2009.



Added: Tuesday, 10 November, 2009 15:18 GMT+2

There are always politicians, in the EU, in nation states and in local communities, who want to use culture as a tool for their own interests. They often want to market their own area with the help of culture and artists. Even if the European union, Denmark or Sweden has some caracteristic cultural hallmarks, there is also a diverse culture. When politicians try to simplify this diversity they are violating the reality for their own purposes, they have forgotten or misunderstood the UNESCO treaty about cultural diversity and they have - in the case of Denmark and Sweden - forgotten the arm's length's principle. The Nordic countries have had this principle for many years and it says that the politicians should facilitate the function of cultural life without interfering with the content. Both that principle and the UNESCO convention are good guidelines. When the goal for politicians is to launch their union/country/region as a commercial company with it's trade mark and image they are very far from democracy and a flowering cultural life. Today we urgently need new ways of living, in a way that we do not use the rescources of earth in an unsustainable way. We need to develop a new culture, where we find new qualitiues of life, instead of a high consumption. The politicians who are part of today's society can to a large extent also be seen as part of the problem (look at the negotiations preparing for COP15!) and they should keep teir hands off the content of culture and cultural development.

Bernt Lindberg, Falun/Sweden