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A Short History of ‘Cultural Relations’ Organizations

March 1, 2019

When I started researching the history of public diplomacies I assumed that the idea of cultural relations came from the French, after all they invented much of the practice but the term doesn’t appear in their organizations until 1944  with the Service des Relations Culturelles, which the following year was elevated to Direction-Génèrale des Relations Culturelles.

American readers will point out that the State Department’s Division of Cultural Relations was created in 1938. Some of the French officials involved in the DGRC were in the US during the war and probably the more immediate source for the French was the rather broader ‘democratic’ version of cultural relations advocated by Nelson Rockefeller and Archibald McLeish.  This American connection also accounts for the spread of the term into British usage in the same era.   It probably also accounts for the Norwegian Kontoret for kulturelt samkvem med utlandet, established in 1950.  This is  translated into English as the Office for Cultural Relations although samkvem on its own wouldn’t be translated as ‘relation’.

However I suspect that it was probably the French example that inspired in 1945 the Spanish foreign ministry to create the Dirreción General de Relaciones Culturales y Cientificas and in the following year the Italian Direzione generale delle Relazioni culturali con l’estero.

Can we work backwards from 1938?  In the same year we Italy creates the Istituto per relazioni cultura all’estero. Before this the best known interwar organizations was  the Soviet VOKS Vsesoyuznoye obschestvo kul’turnykh svyazey s zagranitsey which is usually translated as All-Union Society of Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries which dates to 1925.  I guess this is the source for the 1954 Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries,  Zhongguo renmin duiwai wenhua xiehui (CPACRFC).

But the earliest use of the term in the name of an official organization is in the 1921 Oficina de Relaciones Culturales Éspañolas created in the Spanish foreign ministry 1921.  The idea was to carry out the kind of activities that the French were doing via their institutes, the Alliance Française and higher education exchanges.

‘Cultural relations’ is best read as a name applied to an institutionalized official or semi-official body rather than a very specific description of what they do.  One of the more interesting features of exploring this area is how the scope of ‘culture’ changes across time and across countries.  Also what ‘culture’ means is also a function of how the organization that owns the name fits into a broader organizational environment.

UPDATE: I forgot Japan’s  Kokusai bunka shinkôkai,  the Society for International Cultural Relations created in April 1934.

One comment

  1. […] Brown, “What City Diplomacy Tells Us About Statecraft in General,”  March 6, 2019; “A Short History of Cultural Relations Organizations,”  March 1, 2019; “Is Rules Based International Order the New Credibility,”  February, 25, […]



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