Interesting times

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 16.02.2017
It hasn't happened yet, but museums are already feeling the impact of Brexit
I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge last week for the Museum’s Association’s East of England members’ meeting.  These meetings are always a great day out for us, a chance to meet some really passionate, lovely people and hear about the fantastic work that they’ve been doing.

There was plenty of that at last week’s members’ meeting, including a fascinating presentation on Peterborough Museum’s Esmée Fairbairn-funded project to preserve and interpret its gigantic Leedsichthys specimen, a 2,000-piece fossil of the largest fish that ever lived (rebranded for kids as a ‘big Jurassic fish’ – a nice, upfront bit of marketing there).

The project had some unexpected outcomes, including helping the museum rebuild a lapsed relationship with the owners of the quarry where the fossil was originally discovered – who knows what they’ll dig out of there next?    

We also heard an inspiring presentation by an alumnus of the MA’s Transformers career development scheme, Philip Miles, who described how the scheme had enabled him to raise his skills and confidence "to another level". Applications for some strands of Transformers 2016-18 are still open until 7 March so it’s well worth giving it a go.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that we’re living in interesting times right now, and last week’s meeting felt particularly relevant, giving a real sense of how current events are impacting museums and the people working in them.

A discussion about the impact of Brexit on the museum sector was especially well-timed – the night before, MPs had voted down an amendment to the bill for triggering Article 50 that would have safeguarded the rights of EU nationals to continue working in the UK.

Whether you’re a remainer or a brexiteer (or if, like me, you're sick of both of those unnecessarily divisive terms), there’s no denying that the uncertainty this has caused is having an impact on staff.

Quite a significant proportion of employees in national museums come from elsewhere in the EU, as research by Museums Journal has shown, and although the numbers have not been crunched yet for other museum types, it’s fair to say that by its very nature, the whole museum sector depends heavily on staff – not to mention volunteers, professional networks and specialist expertise – from overseas.

One attendee at the meeting had already seen her museum lose a much-valued Polish volunteer as a result of the referendum, who had no immediate cause to leave but just wasn’t willing to put up with the uncertainty over her future.  There is anecdotal evidence that many others are choosing to make this kind of decision now before their hand is forced.

Other attendees described how the unclear status of EU nationals was causing additional stress among staff, particularly those in less senior roles who might not be paid enough to qualify for visas or residency if they lose their right to work in the UK. 

People also said they were concerned that the recruitment field was already narrowing because of the uncertainty, which may leave museums unable to attract the best person or the right kind of skills and expertise for a role. As one attendee pointed out, “we’re losing great specialisms – and it takes time to train new people up.”

That sense of simply not knowing what is to come permeates other areas of museum work too. Funding is a major worry – although institutions can still access EU funding, some people said there was a sense of reluctance among funders to approve applications from the UK when they didn’t know what the situation will look like a year or two down the line. One person said a funder had told them “we’re not saying no but we just don’t know”.

And the uncertainty is also having an impact on professional relationships, both within and between institutions. In some museums, divisions have arisen between staff depending on which way they voted. One attendee described how some UK institutions were not being chosen as the lead partner in international projects “just in case”. And another attendee said: “It doesn’t feel like a good time to start a relationship with an institution overseas.”

Alongside these practical implications, Brexit has raised deeper questions for museums. We also spoke at the meeting about how vital it is that museums ensure they are welcoming and relevant to the millions of people in their communities who voted leave, particularly considering the likelihood that a vast majority of museum professionals themselves voted remain. “There’s a risk that people who voted leave become more excluded and disenfranchised because they view spaces like museums as ‘remain’ spaces,” said one attendee.

The discussion we had last week felt like it was just the beginning – there’s a long road ahead towards Brexit and I’m sure there’ll be much more to add to this subject, especially when Theresa puts her finger to the Article 50 trigger next month. Make sure you join us at the next few members’ meetings (in Derby, Swansea and Preston) to have your say.