The possiblity of a hard border post-Brexit is a major threat to museums on both sides of the Irish border. Image: Tourism Northern Ireland Media Library (Belfast City Hall)

Sector fails to regard Brexit as a cause for celebration

Geraldine Kendall Adams, Issue 118/11, p14-15, 01.11.2018
The prime minister’s launch of the ‘festival of Brexit’ has been met with ambivalence from a culture sector angry that the government has ignored its concerns and terrified of the repercussions of leaving the EU without a deal. Geraldine Kendall Adams reports
At the Tory party conference last month, the prime minister Theresa May announced a UK-wide “festival of national renewal” to showcase creativity and innovation.

In ordinary times, the announcement of such an event – intended to be the largest creative festival since the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and backed up by £120m of new government funding – would be welcomed with open arms by museums and the wider culture sector.

But these are no ordinary times; reaction to the event, which has been dubbed the “festival of Brexit” by some, has been muted, to say the least. A Twitter poll by Museums Journal found that 79% of respondents did not believe museums should play a part in the festival, which one commentator slammed as “propaganda” (see box).

Ill feeling

Given the growing fears about the negative impact Brexit will have on the culture sector – and anger at the government’s evident failure to listen to those concerns – this ill feeling comes as no surprise.

At the time of writing, negotiations with the EU were approaching a crucial stage and the once-unthinkable possibility of crashing out without a deal was looking increasingly likely. Such a scenario would have a sudden and dramatic impact on the country as a whole, with particular complications for the museum sector.

A set of technical notices published by the government last month offer guidance on some of the specific issues museums might face in a “no-deal scenario”. Of particular concern are the movement of objects of cultural interest and the movement of endangered animals or plants, or their products, as controlled by the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

There are presently no licensing requirements for the import or export of cultural objects between the EU and the UK, so without a deal on exit day next March, the licensing authorities of each country of export, including those in the EU and European Economic Area, would have to be consulted separately. The guidance states: “This may mean that you would have to fulfil further administrative requirements.”

Additional barriers

In a no-deal scenario, CITES-protected animal and plant species that can currently move freely between the EU and UK would require an export permit or re-export certificate from the relevant country, as well as an import permit from the Animal and Plant Health Association.

Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s (MA) policy officer, says: “These new rules and certification requirements could potentially create additional barriers for museums. It’s frustrating and would probably limit the amount museums would work with their European counterparts in future. It will be especially tricky if loans are already organised – it might prove difficult to get things back or fulfil obligations.”

Little faith

For those in receipt of funding from EU programmes, the government has guaranteed all project funding until 2020 in the event of no deal. But there is little faith among those in the culture sector that EU grants would be replaced after that point, particularly given the damaging economic consequences that could result from crashing out.

“The bigger picture is that [in a no-deal scenario] there would be a substantial economic hit to the country, with potentially huge knock-on effects to tourism and the culture sector, which we are really concerned about,” says Brown.

Another significant worry for the museum sector is the government’s post-Brexit immigration plan, which May set out in her speech to conference last month. Under the proposals, there will be a crackdown on low-skilled migration, which is currently defined by the government as those earning less than £30,000. The prime minister also pledged that freedom of movement would end and confirmed that EU citizens would receive no preferential treatment compared with those from the rest of the world.

Severe impact

The plans overlook evidence submitted to the government by the MA and other sector bodies that such a minimum earnings threshold would have a severe impact on recruitment in the cultural sector, which has lower rates of pay for highly skilled roles compared with other industries.

Brown describes the outlook of these proposals for the museum workforce as “pretty grim”. “The high threshold will exclude lots of people,” he adds. “In addition, people in the UK won’t be able to work in the EU to gain skills.

“Our frustration is that these decisions are being made by a small clique of people very high up in government, where the interests of the culture sector are secondary, and yet the unintended consequences for us are enormous.”

Those consequences loom largest for museums in Ireland, both north and south, to which the possibility of a hard border represents a major threat.

“I’ve never been so aware of the border,” says Gina O’Kelly, the president of the Irish Museums Association (IMA). “There are lots of people working in museums who don’t know what it’s like to have a border and didn’t live through the Troubles.”

Changing tack

The Irish museum sector has changed tack on its planning for Brexit this year, says O’Kelly. “Last year, there was a sense that decisions would start being rolled out soon, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” she says. As negotiations have rumbled on without a deal in sight, “there’s been an increased awareness within the culture sector of the need to prepare,” according to O’Kelly. “We’ve been taking a much more proactive approach this year.”

Several museums have gone through an internal audit process to ensure they are aware of how Brexit may affect them and the partners they work with, while museum professionals, alongside those from sectors such as tourism, were due to discuss the implications of Brexit and the Irish border

at talks organised by the Local Authority Museums Network (25 October) and the International Association of Art Critics (1 November). A further discussion will be chaired by O’Kelly at this month’s MA Conference in Belfast.

Philosophical outlook

After initially focusing on the logistical and economic implications, museums in Ireland are now looking at Brexit in a more philosophical way and exploring the wider societal impact, says O’Kelly. Some institutions, such as Monaghan County Museum, have started collecting around the subject.

It’s no surprise that the UK museum sector, which voted heavily in favour of remain, has not grown any fonder of Brexit since the 2016 referendum. But this level of opprobrium has caused consternation among some professionals, who feel museums should be doing much more to bridge the divisions exposed by the vote, and reach out to the leave-supporting public (a survey earlier this year found that visiting museums and galleries was the strongest indicator that someone was likely to have voted remain, indicating that leave voters are, indeed, a missing audience).

Several initiatives, such as the Happy Museum Project, have taken steps to address this polarisation, but there is a feeling that much more needs to be done.

“Brexit is a wake-up call to museums and the arts,” says David Anderson, the director of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales). “It showed how wide a gap there is between predominantly pro-European arts professionals and Brexit-voting communities that felt that they were not being listened to.

“The truth is that ‘we’ left ‘them’ before ‘they’ left ‘us’. Instead of regarding Brexit voters as irrational and even ignorant, we should reflect on our own practice, and commit to a relationship with society that is built on deeper cultural democracy, rather than elitism.”

Brexit will be discussed in a session on 8 November at the MA Conference & Exhibition 2018 in Belfast.

Should museums play a part in the ‘festival of Brexit’?

“Of course we should. Put politics aside. Brexit is likely happening whether you like it or not (I don’t) and having a mardy over it will just isolate us even more. I find it odd that we spend ages going on about reaching out to those who don’t get museums and then will actively shun 51% of the population because we have a different opinion.”

“Playing a part in this sham £120m festival, when so many are suffering from austerity measures, we may find ourselves on the wrong side of history. I just feel if we’re truly dissenters, this is something to dissent on. It impacts us badly: EU colleagues’ freedom of movement, funding access and the xenophobia it has bred, let alone the terrible impact on the economy. This ‘festival’ is propaganda and we shouldn’t play along.”

“I am against the thinking behind and context of this ‘festival’. However, if it is to happen, museums and heritage sites should be front and centre with appropriate funding supplied to support them!”

“While it’s important for museums to facilitate debates on Brexit and engage with the issues it presents, a festival suggests we should be celebrating it. Inappropriate, to say the least.”

“Who will be programmed? White, British men. Could this mean museums are lured into supporting the normalisation of the ‘hostile environment’?”

Responses to Museums Journal’s Twitter poll