Museums struggle to cope with Brexit implications

Geraldine Kendall Adams, Issue 116/09, p12-13, 01.09.2016
With the majority of museum professionals staunch supporters of Remain, perhaps it’s time for the heritage sector to acknowledge that it is failing to address the UK’s growing cultural divide
No matter which side you were on, the EU referendum result came as a shock, as evidenced by the implosion of the woefully unprepared Westminster government and the Shakespearian backstabbing among the leave camp.

Just over two months down the line, the initial shock may have subsided a little, but the future looks no clearer. The new prime minister, Theresa May, says “Brexit means Brexit”, but there is no clear strategy or timetable for the invocation of Article 50: the government’s only tactic seems to be to delay it as much as possible.

In the museum and culture sector, the vote was greeted with widespread dismay, incredulity and fear. There was very little appetite among museum professionals to leave the EU. In March, 97% of voters in a Museums Journal poll said UK museums would be better off in Europe, while in June, 74% of readers said they believed a vote for Brexit would weaken the UK’s global creative success.

Financial implications

In practical terms, the leave vote has worrying financial implications for the sector. Museums and galleries benefit from a myriad of EU funding streams (see p15), both directly and indirectly.

Sharon Granville, the executive director, collections and estate, at National Museums Liverpool, says: “The Museum of Liverpool benefited from more than £10m in investment from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). It was this funding that unlocked the rest of the £70m funding package. It would be impossible for us to deliver that today with the triple whammy of the loss of the ERDF and Regional Development Agency funding, and the uncertainty in the regional corporate sector that exists post-Brexit.”

The UK is one of the most proactive countries when it comes to winning funding from the Creative Europe cultural cooperation programme, which is one of the only dedicated sources of funding for international museum projects; more than 50% of successful bids to the programme have lead partners based in the UK. Although Creative Europe does allow non-EU member states to participate in some circumstances, many other funding streams will undoubtedly be cut off, and are unlikely to be replaced by government spending.

There are particular concerns among museum professionals about EU funding for academic and scientific research, as well as work focused on social impact. “Some of our social impact projects at the museum, such as the Secret Life of Smithdown Road – one of the most diverse communities in Liverpool – were made possible with European funding, in collaboration with partners in other European cities,” says Granville.

Diminished opportunities

Similarly, there are fears in the sector that the Brexit vote will bring about a decline of the cross-cultural networks and collaborations that are so vital to museum practice, and diminish opportunities to work with European counterparts. The vote has, of course, also led to uncertainty for European citizens working in UK institutions, whose right to stay in the country has not yet been guaranteed, and for UK professionals working elsewhere in Europe.

A post-Brexit statement from the National Museum Directors’ Council highlighted some of the many benefits brought about by pan-European collaboration, from “digitisation of collections to staff training and exchange, and from exhibition loans to large-scale projects that rethink the role of museums in creating a more inclusive society”.

So are there any benefits to museums from the referendum result? The weak pound appears to be boosting inbound tourism, while there is the possibility that museums will expand their boundaries and seek out new collaborations with cultural institutions outside Europe.

But the mood in the sector appears to be largely pessimistic. Neither will museums be immune from the wider implications of Brexit. The possibility of another recession looms large for a sector that has already been cut to the bone by austerity.

Meanwhile, the EU itself could look very different in a few years’ time if Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which voted remain, are forced out of the EU against their will. Last month, the Museums Association (MA) met England’s new culture secretary, Karen Bradley, who reiterated the government’s commitment to “making Brexit work” for everyone. But it remains to be seen how that will play out in practice.

Distrust of experts

There are also more intangible issues for museums to address. One of the most startling – and effective – aspects of the leave campaign was the distrust and dismissal of experts and previously respected institutions.

Tony Butler, the executive director of Derby Museums, believes museums, which are still highly trusted by the public, have an important role to play in counteracting these views. “We have to work really hard to dispel the notion that we don’t need experts,” he says. “There’s been a move towards generalism in our sector and perhaps we need to be much braver about recognising the value of expertise.”

An even more serious issue is the ugly seam of xenophobia that has been exposed by the vote, with a spike in racist incidents reported across the country.

Long before 23 June, the rhetoric about migrants and ethnic minorities in the national discourse was growing ever more extreme. Many cultural bodies have acknowledged that they have a role to play in tackling this, with MA director Sharon Heal calling on museums to be more proactive in recognising and addressing people’s fears about immigration.

However, it would be wrong to say that Brexit was only about immigration, or to claim those who voted leave did so out of bigotry.

The result has exposed divisions in society that go beyond race or class, says Butler. “There is a gulf between those who have benefited from globalisation and those who have been left behind,” he says. “Our sector is mostly made up of remainers – there’s a big cultural divide that we were perhaps unwilling to acknowledge before. We’ve spent a lot of time addressing inequalities, but maybe we haven’t got it right.

“My community voted out – it’s our job to understand why that happened,” he says.
Museums can play a key role in healing a divided country
Like many who work in museums, I consider myself European, culturally as well as politically. In my spare time, I campaigned for Stronger in Europe – three months of leafleting, door-knocking and debating. The result, when it came, felt like a personal blow, as well as a political defeat.

My support for remain went beyond just a desire to protect the museum sector. Nevertheless, many of the negative impacts of the vote for museums are now coming more clearly into view. The uncertainty faced by EU nationals who work in museums must come top of this list – a huge emotional and operational shock, which risks needlessly stripping expertise and manpower from the sector.

The extent of the loss of EU funding is still being uncovered, largely because of the hugely diverse strands of funding available – everything from regional development funds to farming subsidies have played a role in supporting the sector financially. At this stage, it is clear that the loss of research funding will be particularly damaging, while I have spoken to many who fear the loss of European cultural networks.

What are the opportunities now? In the immediate term, we appear to be enjoying a tourist boom driven by staycations and a weak pound, which is great while it lasts. Many museums will seek to extend their work and partnerships further across the globe – though many were already doing so.

Perhaps more importantly, the situation imposes a requirement on us to listen, learn and help to heal a divided country. Museums, as social institutions, can play a key role in place-making, strengthening community cohesion and challenging the xenophobia that became a feature of the campaign. In a society damaged by the vote, this ought to be a priority.

Alistair Brown is the policy officer at the Museums Association
EU cultural funding
Creative Europe
The European Commission’s primary source of funding for culture and heritage, with a budget of €1.46bn for 2014-20. The UK has received more than £40m during this funding period.

European Regional Development Fund
A fund aimed at addressing imbalances between regions. It benefits museums by supporting cultural regeneration and Local Enterprise Partnerships. Almost €11bn has been allocated to the UK for 2014-20.

Horizon 2020
The European Commission’s €80bn research and innovation programme, supporting science, industrial innovation and societal challenges such as climate change, and health and wellbeing.

European Capital of Culture
The EU designates, showcases and supports one European city and its cultural highlights each year. Bristol, Dundee, Leeds and Milton Keynes are shortlisted for European Capital of Culture 2023. Erasmus+ Supports intercultural exchange between students of European universities.