When the musket ball tore through the jacket it carried with it some of the gold braiding from the Admiral’s uniform. It drove through his shoulder and came to a halt inside one of his lungs. Nelson never stood a chance.
The surgeon steadied himself on the creaking boards of HMS Victory and cut into the dying man’s chest. He pulled out the musket ball and held it up to the light between his fingers for a few seconds. He made an historic decision. This was no ordinary musket ball. Not only had he just retrieved it from within Britain’s finest military hero but it also glittered as the gold braid had burned into the metal on entry. He handed it to a colleague who pocketed it. The surgeon heard the whisper of Nelson’s voice, ‘Kiss me, Hardy,’ before dying in front of his fellow sailors. He was lost but Britain was saved.
Over 200 years later a film crew arrive at Windsor Castle to make a documentary on the Royal Collections. The highlight of the entire programme is the camera slowly panning across a polished tabletop before halting over a gold locket. We only see how tiny it is when white-gloved fingers begin to open it. Inside is a musket ball with small pieces of gold braiding embedded in the rough sphere.
The UK cultural heritage sector is persistently under direct financial threat and being asked to justify its purpose. Simultaneously, billions of pounds are spent in the UK every month on placing contemporary soldiers and sailors in the line of fire. Britain has always been a fighting nation. It would be fair to say that it has probably started more wars than it has been drawn into. Only a few have genuinely been in self-defence but to be honest, that is not a concern on the whole. The debate for or against war usually ignores the fact that war will happen anyway.
What’s important is that there is an absence of balance in the national budget; our history is viewed as less important than our future. It begins in school, where the sciences, those great disciplines of discovery are plainly seen to be more significant than the other great disciplines of unearthing in the humanities. It continues in universities, where the humanities are always considered to be of less use to society because they cost less to teach and research. They only cost less because they do not receive enough money.
Humanities academics are regularly forced to acquire a skill rarely needed by their colleagues in pharmacy, medicine, engineering and physics – they make do. Save for a few rare opportunities, they tailor research questions down rather than up to the level of grants. Humanities research funding is usually directed at short-term, at best thematic projects and is rarely strategic.
At the other end of the scale, the Large Hadron Collider, (whose purpose, if you’ll forgive me seems gravely pointless, as a need for God will still exist in people’s minds even if it is proved that two entities colliding resulted in the universe – where did those particles come from if they are responsible for everything?) is a machine that has cost almost enough to fund all historical research without limit in every university in the world for many, many years. What more could have been understood about humanity with that money?
Beyond education and into the world of government funding, the questions become more serious on a daily basis. I do not dismiss, for example the need for Britain to have global military reach. I do challenge the assumption that the present and future can be experienced without reference to the past. In other words, that any soldier can march in Afghanistan without knowing why he or she is there based on access to properly funded museums, which are developed through suitably funded research.
We are informed endlessly by the government that the country needs to ‘cut its cloth accordingly,’ or that ‘we cannot live beyond our means.’ These statements are irritating enough because they are so obvious. Every person in the UK does both each time they enter a supermarket. They become more annoying when apparently empty coffers are pillaged to fund bank bailouts and knee-jerk solutions.
The UK has enough money to fund defence and culture. Stop closing libraries. Stop threatening museums. Stop triggering sales in art galleries. Nelson took a bullet not for war itself but because he believed in what he was fighting for – the cultural significance and standing of Britain. That tiny gold-spattered shot represents our history. We can hold it only because the cultural sector exists. Imagine the wealth of knowledge and understanding we could offer if that sector received matching funding to that of defence. Why should that not be the case?
It has not always been clear what Britain has fought against but a strong cultural heritage infrastructure reminds us what we may be called upon to fight for.