What Cornish National Minority Status means for Museums (and Arts and Culture organisations)

Cornish pasty (c) Tehmina Goskar

The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish.

Barely a ripple ran through the cultural sector nationally or here in Cornwall when, on 24 April 2014, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, announced that “the proud history, unique culture, and distinctive language of Cornwall will be fully recognised under European rules for the protection of national minorities.”

Currently researching diversity issues, in rural contexts in particular, and working in Cornwall, I couldn’t understand why museums and the cultural sector here seemed ambivalent to this historic development. I have therefore been formally and informally advocating for greater consideration and awareness of Cornish National Minority Status in my work and to my peers, both here and nationally.

Thanks to an invitation by Cornwall Museums Partnership, I gave a keynote presentation on what National Minority Status means, how its governed and what features of Cornish identity museums could better embrace in their make-up and their work.

I have also advocated to the Museums Association in my capacity as regional representative for the South West. It was also a significant factor in my representations to English Heritage about their new interpretive treatment of Tintagel Castle.

Given the systemic inequality and unintentional bias that has been proven to exist in the museum sector (and in culture more generally), now is absolutely the right time for responsible institutions and individuals to better understand what Cornish National Minority Status means for them and their audiences.

Equality without prejudice

“The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. For the first time the government has recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish.”

“It is without prejudice as to whether the Cornish meet the definition of “racial group” under the Equality Act 2010.”

So the UK Government press release qualified this excellent news. It should also be pointed out that oversight of Cornish National Minority Status has fallen to the Department for Communities and Local Government.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 contains the diversity themes that dominate discourse around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage and concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics.

Under the act, National Minority status is not currently a protected characteristic but it is implied, with colour, ethnicity, national origins and citizenship under race. However, it has been made incumbent upon a successful case of discrimination being prosecuted before the Cornish would be considered a race in the same way as the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish are. Interestingly none of those groups have been made to prosecute a successful case to provide their identity – they can bypass this process by virtue of their “national origins.”

What is a National Minority?

“to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.”

Bretons in Penzance, Cornwall (c) Tehmina Goskar.

Bretons in Penzance, Cornwall.

No definition of a National Minority is provided by the Council of Europe or present in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

The Council of Europe is not part of the EU. It is based on Strasbourg. It comprises 47 member states of which 28 are in the EU. Founded in a post-WW2 world, along similar lines to the UN, in 1949. Its particular responsibility is “to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.” It is responsible for:

  • European Convention on Human Rights
  • Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
  • Other charters and commissions: European Social Charter, European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

About the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

  • Instituted in February 1995
  • UK ratified the convention 1998
  • Contains 32 articles
  • Member states have to report back periodically on request of the Committee of Ministers (UK submitted 4 to date)
  • Does not define a national minority
  • Each member state decides
  • The right to ‘self-identify’ important
  • Must be based on objective criteria connected with their identity, such as their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.

Articles in the Convention with resonance to the museum and cultural sector

My emphasis.

Article 5:

“The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.

Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.”

Article 6:

“The Parties shall encourage a spirit of tolerance and intercultural dialogue and take effective measures to promote mutual respect and understanding and co-operation among all persons living on their territory, irrespective of those persons’ ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity, in particular in the fields of education, culture and the media.”

Article 12:

“The Parties shall, where appropriate, take measures in the fields of education and research to foster knowledge of the culture, history, language and religion of their national minorities and of the majority.”

Article 20 has be criticised by some as a kind of get-out clause i.e. there will always been a reason, if increased consideration and recognition of a National Minority is considered politically unappetising, this clause may be invoked. Decide for yourself:

Article 20:

“In the exercise of the rights and freedoms flowing from the principles enshrined in the present framework Convention, any person belonging to a national minority shall respect the national legislation and the rights of others, in particular those of persons belonging to the majority or to other national minorities.”

How did the Cornish prove their case?

“It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.”

What features of Cornish identity were put forward when campaigning for minority status?

This milestone is the result of a long and sustained campaign with a long history in the modern era for official recognition of the distinctiveness of the Cornish, rooted in a historical past, and Cornwall as a territory with particular characteristics that distinguish it from the “English counties.” A modern political consciousness of Cornish separateness goes at least back into the 19th century and dissent and rebellion against English rules goes back even further than that.

Evidence was gathered in at least two influential reports (see sources below):

The 2011 report by Ian Saltern on behalf of the Cornish Gorsedh, was the most hard-hitting in terms of evidence gathered and the strength of the case put forward, for example:

“It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.”

The case was also built on a positive vision of what official recognition could bring to Cornish and British society as a whole:

“National minority status will enable the Cornish to play a full and active part in British society, contributing to the diversity of the United Kingdom.”

Led by Cornwall Council and its predecessors, with a large collaboration of others the case for National Minority Status was based on:

  • Self-identification
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Traditions
  • History and Cultural heritage
  • Long-term association with a specific territory

The need was based on barriers to: “Maintaining, celebrating and asserting a distinct identity.”

Self-identification is a particularly important feature of Cornish identity, measured through the Census – and thereby addressing Cornish people outside Cornwall and also the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census (PLASC) as a barometer of the growing consciousness of Cornish identity among young people: 37% in 2011 up to 48% in 2014.

Not England

Welcome to Penzance sign (c) Tehmina Goskar.

The aspect of Cornish identity I find most compelling is that based on historical territorial integrity and resistance against England and English assimilation – something museums need to be acutely aware of, for example:

  • Kernow—suggested in use for “at least 2000 years” (unknown sources)
  • Early Anglo-Saxon references to Corn wealh – peninsula of foreigners
  • West Wales
  • River Tamar as border with West Saxon kingdom since 10th c (no source given probably referring to a later 12th reference in William of Malmesbury including expulsion from Exeter—use of medieval history is needs more rigour)
  • Norman Conquest – creation of Earldom in 1068
  • Creation of Royal Duchy in 1337
  • Stannary Parliament and Courts
  • Laws of England intermittently applied to ‘Anglia et Cornubia’ into the 16th century
  • Foreshore Case arbitration case held between 1854 and 1858 between British Crown and Duchy of Cornwall over mineral rights.
  • Bona Vacantia – intestate property in Cornwall goes to Duke of Cornwall’s private estates, not to the Treasury via the Crown.

International recognition of Cornwall in over 30 languages as a separate entity to England is a hard-hitting fact that is difficult to refute, and formed part of the case made for national distinctiveness. This is not afforded to other English counties which is why many Cornish people will rail against designations of Cornwall being in England.

Sources and reports

Cornish National Minority Report 2, 2011: http://www.gorsedhkernow.org.uk/archivedsite/english/downloads/cornish_minority_report_2.pdf

Why should the Cornish be recognised as a National Minority within the UK, 2014: https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/media/7326793/FINAL-Cornish-Minority-Report-2014-pr7.pdf

See also: Cornish Gorsedh, Case for Cornwall, Devolution Deal for Cornwall, Cornish Culture Association, Bewnans Kernow—Partnership of Cornish Cultural Associations.

Call to action for museums

the dignity of visibility.

The 2011 report makes direct reference to how Cornish culture and heritage should be treated by institutions with Cornish collections:

“National minority status will confer upon the Cornish the dignity of visibility. It will acknowledge that Cornish language, culture and heritage are the products of Cornish people – a group with historic national origins no less deserving of official recognition than the Welsh or the Scottish.”

No museum or archive collections were used as examples of Cornish distinctiveness and museums do not feature in the heritage and culture Case for Cornwall, March 2015 (relating to devolution powers to Cornwall Council).

It also directly challenges museums who abide by the Museums Association Code of Ethics which states a museum’s important position of trust in relation to, amongst others,  source communities. 

Ways museums, culture and arts organisations can reflect Cornish diversity

  1. Embrace it! Don’t ignore it.
  2. Look at your governance – ask yourself who makes the decisions?
  3. Do you have a Diversity Policy or Action Plan? Do you state your commitment to the Cornish National Minority and Protected Characteristics?
  4. Look at your programmes – what are the themes of your collections, exhibitions, learning programmes and events?
  5. Partnerships: Who do you tend to work with? Who else could you work with?
  6. What is the make up of your community (not just local area)?
  7. Which audiences do you tend to aim for repeatedly, who isn’t joining in?
  8. Be authentic and be careful of stereotypes.

What next for this research?

  1. Cornish heritage in conflict case-studies e.g. Tintagel Controversy
  2. Develop a toolkit to help you apply the principles of Diversity in a Cornish Context to your work—funds permitting
  3. Explore Welsh, Irish and Scottish contexts
  4. European comparisons – minorities and under-represented
  5. International comparisons – minorities and under-represented
  6. Open dialogue with national agencies to raise awareness of the view from Cornwall and suggest how it can be brought to bear on their policies
  7. Looking for interview subjects
  8. Organise outreach and education programme and set up Rural Diversity Network using Cornwall for action research–funds permitting.

If you work in or use cultural services like museums and art galleries, or you are a practitioner with an interest in diversity in a Cornish context, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

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