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The article opposite was commissioned by The ACE Foundation, a leading educational charity, to celebrate the organisation's fiftieth anniversary.

ACE Company History

David Winter catches up with the Association for Cultural Exchange as it celebrates its fortieth birthday.

It’s 1958. A young man in his early thirties presents himself for interview at the London headquarters of the Financial Times. His curriculum vitae is impressive: degrees from both the LSE and Jesus College, Cambridge; three years working for Military Intelligence in India and Singapore; a successful stint as foreign correspondent (in Copenhagen) for Reuters. Yet our candidate leaves the building a disappointed man: he has failed to land the job... And thank goodness for that! For, had Philip Barnes devoted his considerable talents to a career in journalism, then we would not now be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the unique institution that he founded on May 19th, 1958: the Association for Cultural Exchange.

How much has the world changed since 1958? On the one hand, little seems to be different: then, as now, nationalism was rearing its head across the globe - in Cyprus, Iraq, pre-Castro Cuba and especially Algeria. Back in England, the royals were in the news: Princess Margaret was adamant that she was not about to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, and the title “Prince of Wales” was bestowed on our future king. But other things seem a world away: unemployment stood at 476,000 and England won a Test series (against New Zealand).

And what of the travel industry in May 1958? Britain’s first motorway - quaintly termed the “Preston by-pass” - was still nearly six months from completion, and the Queen was yet to celebrate the opening of Gatwick Airport. On the very day that ACE was founded The Times reported the success of the first British aircraft “capable of flying over the top non-stop from Europe to the Pacific coast”... in a little under eighteen hours! On the front page of the same newspaper, a London travel agent boasts: “Suddenly - A Quick Ticket to Australia”. How quick? Well, first fly to Naples, then journey by boat for sixteen days to Fremantle.

It is against this background that Philip Barnes resolved to set up ACE, an independent company, limited by guarantee for charitable purposes, that would promote the exchange of ideas through travel.

In those early years the most important activity promoted by the Association was a series of summer schools. In its very first year ACE organised fourteen such courses for nearly 300 visitors from abroad on the theme of English life and language. The subject of the first summer school, held at Exeter College, Oxford, was Tradition and Experiment in British Society. The most notable speaker, discoursing on British Parliamentary Institutions, was undoubtedly Earl Attlee, K. G., the former Labour Prime Minister. Yet then, as now, ACE endeavoured to give its course participants a broad taste of cultural life: for the remainder of their stay ACE’s visitors lodged in two former public houses, the “Bear and Crown” and the haunted “Half Moon” in Clare, Suffolk.

In 1959 and 1960 ACE - in conjunction with the American Johnson Wax Foundation - selected a number of teachers from Northern Europe to attend courses at Ripon College, Wisconsin, in American History and Civilisation. Philip was especially keen on offering educationalists a chance to see at first hand academic developments in other countries. In the early sixties, in an effort to strengthen Anglo-Danish relations, ACE collaborated with the Danish Ministry of Education to send instructors in English to Danish summer schools. The emphasis on young people, learning and cultural exchange is equally evident in the title of an Anglo-American-Danish seminar that ACE held in 1963: Youth and its Search for Identity in Modern Democracies.

From the very beginning ACE was keen to impress on prospective customers that it did not pretend to be a run-of-the-mill travel agency. Few of the travel companies that one finds on the High Street would be prepared to offer the following advice: “To get the most out of a course, be prepared to walk. There is no substitute for Shanks’ pony to see things properly” (and don’t forget, of course, you’ve got to be fit enough to carry your own bags!). Nor do many companies share ACE’s history of providing honest and forthright accounts of the accommodation that they have on offer. In ACE’s 1971 brochure Philip Barnes issued the following warning to participants on a residential course in Oxford: “It is important to remember that there is unlikely to be a college servant around these days to carry your bag, that college rooms have not yet all been refurbished in motel style, and college scouts, where they survive, have not the same careful eye for dust as a finicky Victorian chambermaid”.

It was in 1973 that ACE organised its first study excursion outside Europe and the United States, to Mexico. Before long Philip was masterminding tours to virtually all the great early civilisations of the world, including Peru, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mongolia and China. Far-flung visits have also been arranged to the deserts of the Kalahari and Namibia; to Burma, New Zealand and the Falkland Islands. Exotic locations that most people would never have dreamt of visiting forty years ago - such as Senegal, Gambia, Guatemala, Ecuador and Ethiopia - have also hosted parties from ACE. Yet these trips have not been arranged simply to pander to the present predilection for “adventure holidays”. Run by experienced and enthusiastic tour leaders, ACE’s tours are specifically designed not only to entertain but also to inform; to illuminate cultures and histories that might otherwise remain hidden. In this way, as Philip explains, the Association strives “to put people from different countries into situations and places where they can learn as much from each other as they can from us. In short, that learning can be fun”. Nor is there any limit to the context in which this pursuit of knowledge might take place: ACE runs tours that educate and entertain in the fields of art, archaeology, history, music, drama, literature, geology, ecology and wildlife.

Philip is keen to point out, however, that one need not travel to the four corners of the globe in order to enjoy the benefits of ACE’s cultural programme: “Although the world is our oyster, this does not mean that we do not think there is nothing worth seeing and doing at home”. Indeed, ACE has been particularly successful in arranging programmes in Britain, ranging from a course on Samuel Pepys that visited his old Cambridge college, Magdalene, to a trip to the Chester Cycle of Mystery Plays, staged only once every five years.

Yet this is only half the story. Under Philip’s stewardship ACE has never been content with advancing education solely by means of study courses, conferences, lectures and seminars. What makes ACE unique amongst tour operators is that it ploughs the surplus that is makes from its exchange programmes back into charitable projects both at home and abroad. As the number of tours has flourished, so the money donated to philanthropic causes has grown: whereas in the first 25 years the Association dispersed almost £50,000, in the last four years alone ACE has awarded well over £100,000.

The Association has supported well-known organisations such as the National Trust, the British Museum, Oxfam and the Open University. In the past year the Association, in conjunction with Corpus Christi College, has established an ACE Graduate Scholarship at Cambridge University with the specific aim of attracting students from the Baltic States. For three decades from 1967 ACE also financed a postgraduate fellowship at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London, for young professional archaeologists (from the Mediterranean countries and Eastern Europe). Indeed, ACE has a particularly well-established history of funding archaeological projects. It has sent archaeologists to digs in the Orkneys, Czechoslovakia, West Germany and each of the Scandinavian countries. This year and last the Association donated £3000 towards the cost of training archaeologists from Hungary and Poland in the techniques of aerial photography.

It is worth recalling that when ACE began its work in the field of archaeology back in 1964, the discipline was very much a "Cinderella" subject in terms of public funding. ACE is equally proud of the support it has offered other less established causes over the years. For instance, ACE has enjoyed a lengthy partnership with the Edward Barnsley Educational Trust, a furniture workshop based in Hampshire that trains master craftsmen.

Over the past few years ACE’s policy of distributing funds has changed slightly. Under the guidance of Philip Barnes and his son Paul - not to mention the board of trustees - the Association has become increasingly keen to re-invest money in those communities that host its tours. This has lead to some particularly fruitful alliances. For example, in 1992 the Association funded a project to investigate the impact of tourism in Nepal; in the following year a donation was made towards the cost of publishing a second edition of the Herbaceous Flora of Upland Kenya. In 1997 well over £10,000 was presented to Flora and Fauna International for a large mammal conservation project in Cambodia. In the same year a similar amount was given to the Jerusalem Association for Childrens’ Homes for training Ethiopian war orphans in modern agricultural methods.

Yet ACE’s most innovative undertaking must surely be the Association’s alliance, in 1997 and 1998, with the Street Symphony Development Project in Ethiopia. This project brings attention to the plight of young children living on the streets of Addis Ababa - the victims of poverty, war and famine - in a most unique manner: it provides a training in dance, drama and film techniques, thus encouraging the street children to produce a more positive view of Ethiopia - one that celebrates the vitality of their homeland’s culture.

For those who have followed ACE’s fortunes over the past four decades, the most poignant collaboration recently took place in Tamil Nadu, southern India. Here, in Pappireddipatty, as a memorial to Dr. Antony L. Crowe - a trustee of ACE for 36 years - ACE has supported a basic literacy programme for under-privileged women that is run by the IVDP (UK) Trust.

Indeed, one of the most outstanding features of ACE is that it arouses tremendous feelings of loyalty in those who support its aims. Many long-standing customers will recognise the name of Joseph Acheson, who ran programmes from the very beginning of the Association until the year he died, 1993. Similarly, Professor John D. Evans served as a trustee for ACE from 1958 until 1992.

This commitment to the early principles of the Association is one of the reasons why, forty years on, ACE continues to thrive. These ties have lead all three of Philip and Inger’s children to return to Cambridgeshire to devote their efforts to maintaining the ACE tradition of innovation in education. Hugh runs ACE’s offices from a farmhouse just outside Cambridge, whilst Catherine continues the Barnes’ tradition of leading tours to the continent. Paul, meanwhile, serves as Assistant Secretary to the charitable trust.

And what of the young man who failed to land that job all those years ago? Well, like ACE, Philip Barnes continues to thrive. He still enjoys keeping a parental eye on all aspects of the “family firm” and is particularly active in overseeing the charitable side of ACE. One cannot imagine encountering a more widely-travelled and more widely-read individual. Here is a man who has combined his philanthropic disposition and love of travel with a commitment to helping others understand and appreciate the diverse cultures that the world has to offer. One can only hope that Philip’s innate modesty does not prevent him from celebrating the remarkable achievements of the institution that he founded forty years ago.