The ACE Foundation is a well established organisation with a rich and diverse history of supporting education and developing cultural exchange. Its roots are fixed firmly within the philosophy of founder Philip Barnes but its branches extend worldwide.
Philip Barnes was born in Middlesborough in 1926. He was an only child and after his father died he moved with his mother to Chelmsford. Barnes was called up in early 1945 and served in military intelligence for two years. During this time he was posted to India, whose people, landscape and culture made a vivid impression. He returned to London to complete a degree in economics at the London School of Economics, before taking a Masters degree in philosophy at Cambridge. On graduation Barnes joined Reuters and later became their chief correspondent in Copenhagen. This resulted in a lasting love of Scandinavian culture, not only of the modern design and society that was emerging at the time and which was soon to receive world acclaim, but also its less well known country houses and medieval church paintings.
In the aftermath of war, and from his time in India and Scandinavia, Philip Barnes developed two passionate and lasting convictions. The first was the value of education not only in expanding opportunity for the individual, but also in encouraging cultural relations and therefore international understanding. The second was in the value of lifelong learning, without limits on access or age.
In 1958 Philip Barnes founded a non-profit organization: the Association for Cultural Exchange. The structure of the company was based, rather improbably, on the Scottish Council for Trade and Industry, a non-profit company limited by guarantee. Barnes worked without pay for its first ten years, subsidising his fledgling organisation as a supply teacher and then as managing director of a publishing and printing firm that produced the Haverhill Echo and Liberal News.
Barnes took direction for the company from close friends and family and recruited Tony Crowe and James Hockey of the Farnham School of Art as founding members of the organization, as well as Prof John Evans of the Institute of Archaeology at London University.
The Association has always been pioneering in some sense, in the context of the 1950s, group cultural travel hardly existed, nor did overseas campuses for universities. ACE was a pioneer in both, at a time when severe currency restrictions hampered international travel. Conditions in university halls could be spartan, and women were startled to find scouts bringing them hot water in the morning for shaving. The remodeling of colleges for the lucrative conference trade was still decades away. In ACE’s first year, a summer course at Exeter College, Oxford, for Scandinavian teachers was addressed by the former Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and Barnes wryly noted that the food improved just on that day.
In its first three years the ACE also maintained a residential centre in the Suffolk village of Clare, housed in two redundant pubs. But Barnes soon eschewed the challenges of maintaining such a centre in favour of peripatetic courses emphasising travel, although he continued to run summer schools at Oxford for two decades. Courses were held in the UK and in Europe specifically for Americans, in European art and architecture, and for the English in the US, in American history and civilisation, notably at Ripon College in Wisconsin, 1959-60. Courses were also arranged for the University of Pittsburgh, as well as in Denmark and in Wales, examining the search for identity in modern democracies, and work in a free society, both well ahead of their time.
Study tours of Scandinavia included visits to stately and royal homes. On one occasion, a tour group was asked to be particularly punctual for a visit to the Royal Summer Palace at Sofiero, Sweden. There they were received at the door by King Gustaf VI Adolf himself, then in his 80s, who showed the visitors around personally.
Barnes’s passion for India led to scores of trips, initiated long before the hippy trail and at a time when international cultural travel to the sub-continent hardly existed. He started running tours to Mexico in 1974, Iran in 1975 and Peru in 1977.
ACE also sponsored archaeological digs, some of international importance, (notably at Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides) which have taught both amateurs and professionals; and 28 years of fellowships at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. In recent years subsidised British archaeologists have taught the techniques of aerial archaeology to newly liberated ex-communist countries, which in previous years could not have countenanced archaeologically motivated aerial surveillence. At a time when the British were still uncomfortable and ill at ease with the notion of German culture, ACE led the way in specialist tours of Baroque and Rococo Teutonic achievements.
Other early tours focused on Islamic Spain, the culture of China and the natural flora and fauna of New Zealand. Barnes pressed on with cultural tours to Bolivia despite the revolutions and road blocks so frequently encountered in that volatile country. Undaunted, his charity organised a cultural tour to Algeria in 2009, another first.
Music festivals internationally and at home figured largely, as did trips to the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the countries of South East Asia, including early visits to Cambodia when it reopened its borders to the outside world.
As well as sustaining hundreds of study courses, the Association’s growing endowment fund supported scholarships for foreigners to study conservation and heritage methodology in Britain, archaeological fellowships, bursaries for overseas postgraduate students for the universities of York and Cambridge, a school in South Africa, street children in Addis Ababa and women’s village education in India.
In the early 1990s Barnes assumed a supervisory role, retiring from active tour leading, and was to hand over the role of managing director to his son Hugh. His son Paul later replaced him as general secretary.
The statistics over the past half century for such a small travel charity are impressive: about 85,000 participants, 4,000 tours worldwide, 90 countries visited and hundreds of lecturers engaged. Several of the charity’s keenest patrons have taken more than 200 tours. The work of the charity has also been an inspiration to many others and cultural travel and adult education has expanded exponentially in the past half century.
Today the ACE Foundation still exists and continues the charity work of ACE while ACE Study Tours continues educating on worldwide subjects.
In autumn 2009 a new chapter in ACE’s history began, following the purchase of a range of disused farm buildings at Bury Farm, Stapleford, near Cambridge, to give a permanent home for both the ACE Foundation and ACE Cultural Tours. In June 2012 we were delighted to receive planning permission to convert the remaining derelict buildings into an education centre for arts and music. In future, we will once again be providing educational courses from our own study centre, just as we did more than 50 years ago.