Museums can help support Cornishness

Tehmina Goskar, Issue 116/09, p15, 01.09.2016
By supporting Cornishness, museums could alleviate the marginalisation felt by many
On 24 April 2014, the then chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, announced: “The proud history, unique culture and distinctive language of Cornwall will be fully recognised under European rules for the protection of national minorities . . . for the first time, the government has recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish.”

This was a major milestone in a long struggle by Cornish communities for official recognition of their distinct, un-English identity. Although cause for huge celebrations in Kernow (Cornwall), the news passed almost unnoticed by the wider UK cultural and heritage sector. Given the current emphasis on equality and diversity in all aspects of museum work, it is essential all those working in Cornwall or with Cornish collections and audiences elsewhere get to grips with what this means.

Cornish national minority status is governed by the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. But what defines a “national minority” is left to member states. The Framework Convention’s 32 articles contain undertakings that should make museums sit up and take notice, such as promoting the right conditions for national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and refraining from policies or practices aimed at the assimilation of national minorities against their will.

Campaigns in 2001 and 2011 for a Cornish tick box in the census (aligning with Scottish, Welsh, Irish, English, Gypsy/Roma) resulted in an ethnic code being reserved for the Cornish but incumbent on individuals to write “Cornish” in the “other” box. In 2001, 34,000 people in Cornwall and 3,500 in the rest of the UK self-identified as Cornish. In 2011, the figure was 73,200 – 14% of Cornwall’s population.

Growing consciousness among young people in Cornwall of their Cornishness is evident in the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census, with 37% identifying as Cornish in 2011, rising to 48% in 2014.

And yet two years on, the UK government has pulled all funding (a mere £150,000) to support Kernewek, the Cornish language. And at one of the UK’s most-visited historic sites, Tintagel Castle, the Cornish stories were relegated in favour of populist Arthurian interventions, privileging photo-seeking day-trippers over local communities.

The Museums Association’s Code of Ethics refers to museums’ important position of trust towards source communities. In the evidence provided to the Council of Europe, it was made clear that “Cornish language, culture and heritage are the products of Cornish people”.

Museums and national agencies can actively support and include Cornish people in their decision-making, interpretation and activity.

By supporting Cornishness, museums could alleviate the marginalisation felt by many living in one of Europe’s 10 poorest regions, and educate the four to five million yearly tourists that they are in Cornwall – not England.

Tehmina Goskar is a consultant curator and heritage interpreter based in Penzance, Cornwall, and is the Museums Association’s representative for south-west England