“Autumn is one of our top seasons”: Czech Centre London’s fall programme packed with events

Czech Centre London

The global network of Czech Centres operates as the cultural wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, promoting the Czech Republic abroad and strengthening cultural ties between countries. There are 26 Czech Centres operating in 24 countries on three continents. On a recent trip to the UK, I spoke to Přemysl Pela, director of the Czech Centre London, and started by asking him what projects they have lined up for the next few months.

“There are a number of projects – autumn is one of our top seasons. In October we have a very strong programme starting with the opening of an exhibition on augmented reality and innovations for a sustainable future, showing how science and innovation help us to meet our long-term targets and humankind’s most pressing challenges.

“The project is on the backbone of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. We are presenting them with the graphic design of Pavel Fuksa at the Europe House here in London – there’s great interest from the media and the public. The opening is going to be on 6 October and will be there for the next two months until the beginning of December.

AR Interactive Exhibition: Innovations for a Sustainable Future [Private View Event]

“The second thing I might mention is the Václav Havel European Dialogues: Peace and Democracy in Crisis. We are collaborating with two of our partners, University College London and the University of Cardiff and there are some great speakers coming from abroad and from the UK.

Source: Czech Centre London

“We believe that many of Václav Havel’s thoughts are very relevant today, especially with the situation we are facing in Ukraine, the rise of nationalism, and the sustainability issues I mentioned before. So this will be a two-day symposium discussing these topics.

“I’m also really looking forward to the next Made in Prague festival which is the cream-of-the-cream of our activities and this year is going to be the 26th edition. It’s going to be five weeks, we are starting on 1 November with the opening gala concert of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra featuring music from Dvořák and Smetana.

“Part of the festival is going to be the traditional presentation of new contemporary Czech cinematography, so there will be a number of films which we will be showing audiences in London but also outside London, like in Scotland.

Source: Czech Centre London

“We will also have a presentation by The Royal Institution on the topic of how artificial intelligence can help to preserve wildlife, which is very interesting – and very topical. And here at the Czech Centre we have an exhibition by Jiří Franta and David Böhm which is also on display outside the Czech Embassy.”

How did the Covid-19 pandemic influence the work of the Czech Centre?

“It had a significant impact on the Czech Centre’s physical activities; on the other hand it sparked our presence in the digital realm much more. This has been something very close to my heart – we very quickly switched to online events, including Czech language classes. There are clearly benefits to that.

Přemysl Pela | Photo: Czech Centres

“Although on the negative side you lose the personal touch with people, on the plus side you reach a much greater audience – not only people who are London-based, but people throughout the entire United Kingdom, so we actually saw much greater interest in Czech Centre events throughout covid as people got locked in and could very easily follow the events online.

“Going forward, we are keeping some of the events online but of course we are happy that the majority of them can be back live here in the Czech Centre or at our partner institutions throughout London.”

You’ve been in London for three years so you weren’t here when the Brexit referendum happened, but you were here when the UK actually left the EU. Has it had any impact on the activities of the Czech Centre?

“Brexit I think has had a significant impact on the entire country, not excluding the cultural community and cultural institutions. I think it’s becoming more challenging for British artists to travel freely throughout Europe for their performances, concerts, and exhibitions, and the same clearly applies to Europeans, so for Czechs coming to London.

Photo illustrative: Tumisu,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“There is obviously more of an administrative and bureaucratic burden so collaboration is a bit more challenging. But as far as I can think that is probably the most stand-out impact.

“There are not any repercussions towards art or culture coming from the Czech Republic or any other European country – on the contrary, I think there is a significant part of the United Kingdom which is very eager to keep the bridges and lines of communication open, and I hope the Czech Centre contributes to that.”

Do you cooperate with other cultural institutions from other countries?

“The Czech Centre is part of UNIC, which is an association of European cultural institutes. The London cluster is one of the largest in the world with 35 members, which I had the opportunity to lead for one year in the presidency team.

Source: Czech Center London

“So we collaborate with a number of UNIC members, with our European colleagues here, like the Goethe-Institut or the Institut Francais, there are also the Polish and Hungarian institutes, on a number of events.

“One of them specifically, which will be part of the Made in Prague festival, is a concert of digital electronic music, Electronica, which will take place at the end of November in a renowned club here in central London, Rich Mix.”

Who is your main audience – is it mostly Czechs or British people?

“The Czech Centre is primarily for the local audience, so in our case the British public. Of course, we are not excluding the Czech diaspora living in the UK, but as the Czech Centre is the extended arm of the public diplomacy, our primary target is the local audience, local opinion-makers, the British media – these are our primary targets who we invite to our events and communicate with.”

Do you ever do polls of the British public to see what they think of the Czech Republic?

Madeleine Albright | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio

“There was actually a project in the past with the Czech Centre asking exactly that – what is the image or brand of the Czech Republic outside its borders. At that time I was director of the Czech Centre in New York, so for that project we interviewed a number of personalities – I recall an interview with Madeleine Albright which was quite inspirational.

“She was a very strong advocate of promoting something to the American public which was very new to them at the time – a portrait of the Czech Republic as a very open society, a society which is stable on the one hand but very progressive, democratic, and respectful to one another on the other. So that was one of the outcomes of that research which we did. We haven’t carried out any research during my tenure here in the UK.”

So you’ve also been the director of the Czech Centre in New York – were there any obvious differences in how you had to carry out your work in the US versus here?

London | Photo: Free-Photos,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“Personally I was surprised because I was expecting more similarities between the United States and Great Britain, and between New York and London, but actually there are not really that many, besides the English language. But they are very different societies, and the culture scene operates differently as well. So there are not really that many commonalities based on my experience.

“New York is a very cosmopolitan, vibrant city – of course, the same can be said about London, especially from a European perspective. So I guess that would be one of the common denominators, because you see people from many different national, racial, political and philosophical backgrounds, so this is actually very nice, because it’s a very enriching environment personally and professionally.”