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October 7, 2022

Nigel Bellingham, Director, British Council Romania: 80 years of cultural relations between Romania and the United Kingdom

This year, the British Council in Romania celebrates its 80th anniversary, just as modern Romania marks its 100th birthday. We’ve been around for a long time, changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust. It’s a great opportunity to look back at the way cultural relations have transformed Romania, the UK and Europe throughout this time, but also to look towards the future, and continue on our mission to forge a better future through arts, culture and education.

We are the UK’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We build international partnerships, foster global dialogue and promote international student mobility, making a positive contribution to the countries we work with.

During the past 80 years, we have helped Romania’s emerging leaders in culture and education to develop new skills and international partnerships.

Recognising the importance of cultural exchange and experience in foreign policy, the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries, afterwards named the British Council, was founded in 1934, amid growing extremism in Europe. The Romania office was opened in October 1938, and our country was in fact one of the first four countries in the world where the British Council set up an overseas office, along with Egypt, Portugal and Poland.

Our English school had over 3000 students by 1940, our library – which has been active since the early 70s – had on average 115 Romanians visiting its cramped cabin on the Embassy premises every day in 1987; people who defied stringent security checks for the breath of fresh air that movies, music and literature brought about in an otherwise grim city.

Cultural exchanges were ripe whenever and however the political situation allowed. Academic exchanges abounded and we had university lecturers at various locations from the 1970s onwards. In the arts, the historical 1964 visit of the Royal Shakespeare Company with their production of King Lear marked a new era of cultural dialogue. London hosted the George Enescu International Festival the same year, while artist Henry Moore’s sculptures were exhibited in Romania in 1966.

In the 1990s our work in the English language teaching and with artistic communities helped re-establish even stronger UK-Romania links. We helped bring in 400,000 books contributed by academic libraries and organisations across Britain, donated computers to the university library in Bucharest, enabled access to learning opportunities, exchanges and international qualifications for teachers and students. We supported a young theatre festival that has now become Europe’s third-largest of its kind, the Sibiu International Theatre Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year under the patronage of HRH The Prince of Wales.

Today, more young people than ever find opportunities to connect with the UK through our English language courses, internationally-recognised examinations, our work in arts, education and society, but also through our digital and online resources. We have offices and libraries in Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca and Iași, but we are active across the country, both on the ground and online.

Throughout our history, we have also faced tough times, such as breaks in activity during the Second World War and diplomatic differences during the communist era. Today we face new challenges; the UK’s decision to leave the European Union makes it all the more important that we maintain and strengthen our bi-lateral connections with the individual countries of Europe.

We are responding to these challenges as we always have done – by seeking to do more; building partnerships that strengthen systems for artists and education institutions; growing our networks so that more young people can access UK opportunities; and sharing the best of the UK with people in Romania.

Our 80th anniversary is an opportunity to recall highlights from our past – but also to look forward and reaffirm our commitment to the future. We invite the people we work with, from students to leaders, to recognise how cultural collaboration has changed Romania and the rest of Europe for the better in the past 80 years. Here’s to the next 80!

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