Academic excellence does not guarantee success as minister

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"Hours of Culture" event in Khovd Province

For the last 30 years, since the Democratic Revolution of Mongolia, people from the arts and cultural field lacked a designated ministry to take good care of the sector.

Past governments didn’t take the existing issues of the field seriously. Compared to sports, aid, scholarships and support from the government for those who are succeeding in arts or cultural field in international competitions or tournaments was almost nonexistent.

During the early 1990s to mid-2000s, some artists, singers, dancers, actors and academics of history, philosophy and language were hit by cyclical unemployment resulting in some major talents to become homeless, facing starvation and destitute. Also, some cultural heritages were sold to individuals and shipped overseas while some of them were destroyed.

Finally, this year, the Ministry of Culture is established for the first time by the government. This is way too late for a generation that was sacrificed by the change of governance system, but they say it’s better late than never. The people were looking forward for the ministry to save the abandoned field as this was the first time a separate ministry devoted to solely cultural affairs was established, signaling the high significance the government attaches to the field.

This article will evaluate the work the ministry and minister to date.

Right after Parliament announced that the new government would have a Ministry of Culture, only one name was on everyone’s lips - Minister S.Chuluun. Some rumors say that director N.Naranbaatar of the National Academic Drama Theaterwasa candidate, but the rumor didn’t last since the government didn’t take long to appoint the minister.

Sc.D. S.Chuluun is an academician (full member of an artistic, literary, engineering or scientific academy) in history and ethnic studies who used to work as Head of Institute of History and Institute of History and Archaeology at Mongolian Academy of Science. He was once accused by a fellow academic of faking his CV and taking full credit for articles and books he jointly wrote with other academics to obtain an academician title. Even though the public was eating up the scandal on social media, the boiling criticisms weren’t enough to stop him from being appointed. On the whole, people who work in cultural fields and their family were happy about having a whole ministry dedicated to developing their working environment and market.

Minister S.Chuluun introduced three main directions of policies of the ministry through a TV interview.

These include: 

  1. 1. To restore, preserve and protect cultural and historical heritages and to develop them as tourism attraction.
  2. 2. To focus on the enlightenment of the public.
  3. 3. To focus on the development and human resources issues of every forms of art.

As part of the first policy direction, S.Chuluun claimed that the ministry is working on a mobile application which will include all information of every cultural heritage throughout the country. According to him, the mobile application will be easy to access, understandable and ultimately informative for both locals and tourists.

“The database work is almost done and the application will be ready in 2023,” the minister said.

Recently, tomb raiding and smuggling of heritages have been rapidly increasing. The most crucial action for now is preservation and protection. If the cultural heritage survives from the criminals, it can become a tourism attraction through promotion. However, protecting them is not an easy thing to do, since most of them are located in the countryside,in desolate areas without supervision or protection, and their protection is now the ultimate task of the government. The main reason these heritages or tombs are being raided so often is loophole in the law. The Mongolian law has no oversight for people who raid these precious heritages.

However, Minister of Culture S.Chuluun, who is supposed to be initiating laws for serious punishment for cultural saboteurs, hilariously fails in the TV interview while promoting the app.

He said, “As part of the ‘Digital Cultural Heritage’ program, the mobile application is being made. Many instances of cultural looting is being recorded. To prevent this, the mobile application will provide data of people who viewed the information of the heritage that was raided or destroyed. For example, if a heritage is looted, the culprit can be found from the people who viewed the heritage on the mobile application.”

Would someone really use a government-sponsored mobile application when choosing where to loot next?

People are looking forward for the progressive and “real” actions promised by the government since both the minister of culture and prime minister are talking about it a lot.

The second direction is enlightenment. On this matter, the minister promises that the soon-to-open Chinggis Khaan Museum will not be a disappointment as most expect it to be.

“The exhibitions for the museum are varied and interesting enough so people don’t have to worry about it. Over 4,300 exhibitions will be present. This museum will be a center of knowledge, education and enlightenment. It will contribute to Mongolia’s economy as a tourist attraction. The Natural History Museum will be built in Ikh Tenger Am and it will enlighten the people.”

The credit for the Chinggis Khaan Museum does not belong the minister since the project started long before his appointment.

He talked a lot about making video contents to promote museums and cultural heritages to “enlighten”the people. Whether the people can be enlightened through videos or not is debatable. Most importantly, the quality of those video contents should be priority.

In recent years, Mongolian filmmakers and content creators are becoming highly skilled. However for some reason, state organizations avoid hiring skilled professionals. There is almost no decent video to promote the capital city and that should have been at the top of the list. The contents made by state organizations always disappoint due to lack of involvement of professional artists.

The third and most important direction is the crippling issues plaguing of the arts field.

The people were expecting the ministry to take decisive action to save the most endangered field --the circus. The Mongolian circus is famous around the world for its traditional contortion shows and horse riding. Mongolian circus crews are always invited to international festivals and their performers are considered as some of the world’s most skilled. However, now, the circus is almost extinct in Mongolia.

In 2007, the Mongolian National Circus was privatized and named as ASA Circus. At the time, sumo champion and business tycoon Asashoryu D.Dagvadorj became the owner of the circus, promising to save the circus and develop it to the highest peak possible and the rest is history.

Over 80 years ago, the first circus school was established in Mongolia. The people who dedicated their life to circus and the youth who are interested in it are crying and most of the performers went overseas to survive as the field is perishing, while the Ministry of Culture has not even uttered its name.

One of the biggest initiatives Minister S.Chuluun did is the “Hours of Culture” campaign. At the opening ceremony of the campaign, he said that he is very glad that the “Hours of Culture” campaign is launching “for the sake of the Mongolian people’s enlightenment.”

Events held as part of the campaign include concerts and plays on the mini-stage in streets of districts and provinces,as well as exhibitions of museums and galleries brought outside with books of libraries. However, the events held under the campaign, which were supposed to promote institutions, backfired badly as it “endarkened” the people of Ulaanbaatar and provinces.

The campaign raged the public and cultural experts, who called it “ridiculous”. Artists of state owned theaters and ensembles confessed that they were treated like street performers. In Mongolia, buskers and street performers are considered beggars. But professional artists from the National Academic Drama Theater or State Opera and Ballet Academic Theater were forced to perform in the streets,along with flash mob dancers or amateur artists.

From ancient times, the theater was considered an institution of the highest form of art. For those who have never been to theater or doesn’t know about theater etiquette, a theater is a place of sophistication. Plays, ballet or opera written or staged for the theater belong on a stage, and performed by the most talented and skillful actors, dancers and singers.

People pay their money to get aesthetic emotions and feelings from theaters or ensembles. Whether it is Mongolian classics or world classics, it is disrespectful for people who devoted their life to the high arts at great personal sacrifice to have then perform on the streets to uncaring and unappreciative audience.

The worst thing about the street performances was that hardly anyone stopped to watch it – they just passed by. This gave the people the impression that the art is worthless and disrespected the essence of live performances.

Some websites and newspapers wrote about the “illogical” events of the campaign. Most surprisingly, the artists themselves were mute as fish. They should have learned to the value of themselves and their art, as well as the message such campaigns give to the people about the art. Their silence can be understood since they were in complete hiatus due to COVID-19.

Now that the quarantine regime is over and activities of institutions are going back to normal, artists should break their silence and stop the heinous treatment of the arts.

Even worse, these events are being during business hours without announcing the schedules, with even those who want to watch them unable to. Pensioners are the main audience and the youth, the supposed target, are barely present since they have school and work.

Another atrocity of the campaign is the fact that they are exhibiting museum and gallery pieces on the streets. What about conservation rules? What if these precious exhibits or paintings are lost, damaged or stolen? Those in desperate situation will steal anything and sell it with any price. Again, the message is that the ministry doesn’t think art and cultural heritages are worth protecting and preserving by treating them as things to be paraded and placed in public streets.

The cherry on top was the fact that the minister assumed that precious and rare books ought to be made available in streets, assuming that anybody actually reads them, outside, in Mongolia’s fickle climate, while a live concert and a crowd drone on loudly.

In other countries, precious and rare books are kept in controlled climate and environment, but here the minister decided it appropriate to showboat them in Mongolia’s harsh sunlight and autumn wind.

The next thing the minster should do is film theater and ensemble performances and broadcast them through TV and invent a mobile museum, gallery and libraries that visit each person’ home and serve them, since he insists everyone have their share.

The campaign will end on October 26, but the damage is done.

The fact that a campaign that damages the image and reputation of the arts and puts important cultural heritages and rare books at risk was allowed to happen in the name of promotion illustrates the incompetence, lack of common sense and unqualified staff at the ministry. Though only few months have passed since the Ministry of Culture, its head has demonstrated he

is unfit for the position as he fails to understand the spirit of his mandate.

Khantushig B