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[Bridging Cultures] English classrooms build cultural ties: British Council director

March 11, 2024 - 16:20 By Choi Si-young
Paul Clementson, director of the British Council in Korea, poses for a photo ahead of an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Seoul on Feb. 7. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

For most South Koreans, the British Council in Korea is better known for classes helping prepare for English proficiency exam IELTS than for holding large-scale cultural events. Some have said the “cultural center” should live up to its mission.

Paul Clementson, the council director, is confident that it is and has been doing just that.

“We’re not only teaching Koreans so that they can learn English. We’re not just offering qualifications to people so that they get the qualifications,” Clementson said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

“There’s a cultural exchange going on. The ways in which they teach are the top pedagogical approaches from EFL teaching in the UK. That to us is a mutual cultural exchange,” he added, referring to native speaker instructors’ experience in teaching English as a Foreign Language classes in the UK.

The aim of exams in Korea, Clementson noted, is to promote “efficiency and integrity and transparency” -- a combination he wants to be “emblematic of what the UK is” to those preparing and sitting for the exams. “So it’s all cultural exchange and it’s all cultural relations, and that’s how we frame it,” Clementson said.

Members of the Korean National Policy Agency pose for a photo during an English training course offered by the British Council in Seoul on November 5, 2023. (British Council)

Fresh push for ties

But the three-time director, who took office in October 2022 after posts in Zambia and Azerbaijan, acknowledged that the council does not open “big splash events so much,” when it comes to organizing cultural projects requiring direct participation from the Korean and British governments.

“The 2017-2018 Korea-UK Arts Season” was when Seoul and London were “really going for (such projects),” Clementson recalled, citing a yearlong celebration that showcased a variety of artistic exchanges including exhibitions and performances from February 2017 to June 2018.

The Creative Futures exchange, as the British Council calls the joint program, helped pave the way for the two countries to engage as often as needed to expand their cultural ties, Clementson added.

A gallerygoer views works on display in a special exhibition at the National Museum of Korea showcasing 52 paintings from the National Gallery in London. (National Museum of Korea)

Reciprocity in mind

“We don’t just do arts and culture in order to project the arts and culture of our country or any other country,” Clementson said. “The point behind it is to bring people together to understand each other better for mutual benefit.”

Last year, London’s National Gallery contributed to the National Museum of Korea seeing a record 4 million people visiting the country’s largest museum. “Masterpieces from the National Gallery, London,” featuring 52 paintings from the gallery, including “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, drew the fourth-highest attendance of all special exhibitions held up to that point.

Arts collaborations continue this year, according to Clementson. This year’s joint projects are as expansive in topics discussed, as they are seminal in posing questions communities have been grappling with to find better answers.

In late February, the British Council hosted a roundtable in Seoul on the City of Culture initiative. Since 2019, Korea has been trying to learn from the UK government designated-cities that “bring communities together and build local pride.”

Lasting relationship

The annual Creative Commissions for Climate Action, begun in 2021 when Korea hosted a P4G (Partnering for Green Growth) summit and the UK convened a COP26 meeting, both climate change meetings, continues to take place every year.

Last year, the Korea Foundation and the British Council selected “Littoral Chronicle,” a project by a coalition committed to advancing climate action, for the annual commission.

The coalition will soon release its results. It comprises ikkibawiKrr, a Korean collective focusing on nature and ecology; Indian-born independent curator and researcher Ritika Biswas; London-based multimedia artist Shezad Dawood; and feature-length film company UBIK Productions.

“We’re kind of doing smaller, but in many ways more significant, cultural events, because they’re longer term,” Clementson said. “They set up long-term relationships between people who then go on to know each other for years and carry on collaborating.”

This is the second in a series of interviews with heads of foreign cultural centers at the forefront of cultural exchange. --Ed.