Brexit: the next crisis? - Museums Association

Brexit: the next crisis?

UK museums, already hit by Covid, face more uncertainty now the Brexit transition period is ending
V&A Dundee is one of the institutions participating in the development of Festival UK 2022, which has been dubbed the 'festival of Brexit'

With everything that has happened in 2020, people could be forgiven for not giving the UK’s exit from the EU much thought in recent months. Brexit Day, at the end of January, seems like something that took place in another age. But the transition period will come to an end on 31 December, and the UK is about to embark on a new trading relationship with its international neighbours.

As trade talks go down to the wire, it is still unclear exactly what this new partnership will look like. But whatever terms we leave on – deal or no deal – the end of the transition will bring fresh complications for culture and heritage institutions in a year in which many fear they are already facing an existential crisis as a result of the pandemic.

At this stage, most museums will likely be aware of the main practical implications of leaving the EU. In addition, the UK government has instructed all sectors to plan for border delays in the period immediately after the transition ends, review potential costs associated with those delays and consider ways to minimise their reliance on key routes.

These immediate concerns are likely to heap further pressure on many industries at a time when they are already struggling.

Bad timing

“It’s extremely bad timing to ask our sector or any other to deal with the implications of a possible no-deal Brexit,” says Alistair Brown, policy manager at the Museums Association. “We’re all dealing with the Covid-19 crisis and how the sector is going to stay afloat, so having to consider the additional requirements of Brexit is frustrating.”


The one small silver lining, he says, is that the pandemic means museums’ day-to-day operations may not be as affected as they would have been in normal times.

“Museums are putting on fewer shows, so if there are problems at the border, they shouldn’t be too entangled,” says Brown. “There are very few visitors from Europe, so that potentially gives us some time to iron out the issues.”

In the longer term, however, the finer detail of the post-Brexit arrangements is far from settled, and this is affecting forward planning at cultural organisations. One area of concern is the cultural relationship between the UK and EU member states, which has flourished in recent years and provides vital opportunities for training and knowledge sharing.

There are very few visitors from Europe, so that potentially gives us some time to iron out the issues.

Alistair Brown, policy manager, Museums Association

A research paper published by the University of Manchester in November warned that there is likely to be a “hiatus” of at least two years in cultural partnerships between the UK and EU because arts and cultural organisations have “refrained from planning projects with EU partners as a result of uncertainty regarding future regulations”.

Post-doctoral fellow Charlotte Faucher, who wrote the study, says: “For all the people I’ve spoken to, what stood out most is the inability to plan because they don’t know where they’re going. In terms of actual, de facto planning, they feel they’ve been forgotten.”

Lack of guidance

As the government grapples with the pandemic, clear advice on Brexit has not been forthcoming. “Everyone thought, maybe we’ll know more in 2020 when we finally see the guidance,” says Faucher. “And then Covid-19 happened.”

Funding is also a source of uncertainty. The government has confirmed that UK institutions will not be able to apply for money from Creative Europe – the EU’s flagship cultural funding programme – after 2021, and the report urges Whitehall to create a replacement fund to address this shortfall.

In the absence of strategic direction from the top, many UK institutions have taken individual steps to establish or strengthen relationships with European partners – and there is an appetite among EU nations to maintain these connections.

There is a history of collaboration, for example, between Sheffield’s Site Gallery and Kulturforum, in Witten, Germany. Site now plans to apply for Creative Europe support through a partnership with the German arts complex, to “circumvent the uncertainty” about whether or not UK institutions can access EU funding going forward.

Site Gallery in Sheffield is working with a partner institution to continue accessing Creative Europe funding

But bilateral partnerships cannot replace the support of a broader network, nor can they hide the fact that UK institutions are no longer able to take a leadership role in such projects. Faucher fears that without a formal structure behind them, some of these new relationships may not last the distance. 

Acute anxiety

Nowhere has the uncertainty caused by Brexit been more acutely felt than in Northern Ireland, where the prospect of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland and a potential upsurge in sectarian violence has brought much anxiety.

The Northern Ireland Protocol of 2019 – which circumvented the need for custom checks at the border – brought some comfort on this front, says Elizabeth Crooke, who leads on heritage and museum studies at Ulster University. Museums on both sides of the border remain determined to maintain strong relationships, she says.

But many in the province fear that the economic upheaval of Brexit is only just beginning. “There are no guarantees of what things are going to look like in Northern Ireland, and that uncertainty is a big concern for trade,” says Crooke. For her, one of the key issues museums face – aside from their own survival – is how to stay relevant to people’s lives and support community resilience and wellbeing at a time of “multiple crises”.

“People are worried about the economy and jobs, they’re not going to be worried about museums,” she says. “Anxieties are building in people and they feel there’s no future. We need to think about how we can still be there for them – maybe that’s what the role of culture is.”

It’s a question that many museum professionals have struggled with since the referendum changed the cultural and political landscape so dramatically.

Changing landscape

The UK government regards the Festival UK 2022 – the year-long event that has been dubbed the “festival of Brexit” – as an opportunity for culture to show its strengths, acting as a tool to bring communities together and parade the UK as an open, global-facing nation.

Although initially greeted with scepticism, many cultural institutions have come around to the idea. In November, the government unveiled 30 creative teams that will pitch ideas for the festival. The participating institutions include National Museums NI, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and V&A Dundee. Privately, however, many culture professionals continue to express misgivings about the event.

Exiting the EU has never been popular in the museum and culture community – the University of Manchester report describes the emotional impact and sense of loss felt by many culture professionals after the referendum. But there is also concern that this antipathy towards Brexit illustrates a sector that is out of step with many of its audiences.

As well as grappling with the practical implications that the coming months will bring, museums will need to consider the deeper role they can play in people’s lives at a time when divisions run deep and the future has never looked more uncertain.

Brexit: key practical issues for museums

  • EU citizen’s rights it is recommended that organisations inform the relevant staff about the EU Settlement Scheme and encourage them to register by the 20 June 2021 deadline
  • EU funding it is still unclear what funds UK organisations can access after Brexit. The Euclid Network, which helps civil society organisations to access EU funding, is planning a series of workshops this year to help UK organisations understand what options are available to them
  • Migration A new points-based immigration system is due to be introduced in January 2021
  • Travel travelling to the EU for the purposes of work may involve extra conditions and people are advised to check individual EU member state immigration rules. International stakeholders coming to the UK should also check whether they need to apply for a visa and what documentation they will need
  • Movement of goods museums and cultural organisations moving endangered species or their products across the EU should refer to government guidance on how the UK can comply with obligations under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)
  • Export and import of cultural property organisations will need a UK licence to export cultural objects from any destination; they no longer need to apply for an EU licence
  • Customs and loans for museums the EU Commission has published guidance on new custom procedures, including information on relief from import duty
  • Government Indemnity Scheme consideration should be given to the likelihood of delays. Cover will not be extended automatically in the event of delays and borrowers will have to apply for an extension
  • Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights copyright law is changing from 1 January 2021; further guidance is available here

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