National museums fear Brexit 'brain drain' - Museums Association

National museums fear Brexit ‘brain drain’

Uncertain future for hundreds of EU citizens working in UK's national museums
Patrick Steel
National museums in the UK are concerned over the status of EU staff, including specialists, curators, researchers and those working in front of house roles after MPs voted down an amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill that would safeguard their rights.

Many national museums have not collated or would not divulge numbers of EU nationals on their workforce. But there is enough data to indicate that hundreds of staff face uncertainty over their future.

EU nationals constitute nearly 20% (155) of the Natural History Museum’s workforce, and work in areas such as scientific research, curation, front of house and operational support.

At the British Museum EU nationals account for approximately 15% (150) of staff working across departments from curatorial to visitor services and marketing, while 11% (87) of the Science Museum Group’s staff are EU nationals.

At National Museums Scotland 7% (33) of staff are EU citizens. National Museums Liverpool has staff from EU countries in departments including curatorial, conservation, archaeology and front of house, and Tate employs EU nationals across all areas of its operations.

Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) has nine non-UK EU nationals on staff, across finance, collections, front of house, and development.

National Museums Northern Ireland employs one French national in its visitor services department. The museum does not currently have figures for the numbers of non-UK Irish nationals on staff.

At a roundtable event convened by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) earlier this month, the government said it was committed to protecting the status of EU nationals already working and living in the UK, but only if the rights of British citizens living in EU states were protected in return.

The roundtable was attended by representatives from the Museums Association (MA), Arts Council England, Heritage Lottery Fund, British Council, National Museums Directors’ Council, the Science Museum Group, and the Association of Independent Museums.

David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool and the president of the MA, said: “I have no idea how the UK will elicit such assurances from 27 nations.

“Ministers [at the roundtable] were concerned with identifying opportunities for the UK cultural sector post-Brexit. It seems to me that most of these will relate to non-EU nations and will revolve around the sale of skills and expertise, so there will be a new emphasis on relations in South America and Asia, for example.”

Museums Journal understands that the roundtable also considered what could be done to replace talent and how the government could better support routes into the museum sector for UK nationals. But it was recognised that this would take time and that some roles could not be replaced in this way.

David Jones, the minister of state for Europe, told Parliament on Monday that although the status of EU nationals working in the UK was one of the government’s priority objectives for negotiations, “we must wait until the negotiations commence, and until they do, we must not make any concessions”.

Museums Journal understands that the DCMS is in regular dialogue with the Department for Exiting the European Union and with national museums over Brexit, but none of the museums contacted had been offered assurances over the future status of their EU staff.

Last November the British Museum arranged for an immigration specialist to talk to staff about what Brexit might mean for them and how they might be able to apply for British citizenship. A British Museum spokeswoman said that the museum would continue to offer guidance to its staff going forwards.

Alistair Brown, the MA’s policy officer, said: “Museum workers from other EU countries make a very valuable contribution to this country’s museums, and we strongly believe that the government should confirm their permanent right to live and work in the UK.

“Using these people as a bargaining chip in negotiations may turn out to be self-defeating, as talented individuals decide to take their skills elsewhere.

“Many of these people have become deeply disenchanted with life in the UK since Brexit, and politicians need to take the risk of a 'brain drain' seriously.”

The wider sector

The whole museum sector is being affected by the Brexit negotiations, and the uncertainty has led some in local and independent museums to question their future in the UK sector.

Tamalie Newbury, the executive director of the Association of Independent Museums, said: "Where members have current employees who are non-UK EU citizens they are of course worried about the future for them and the uncertainty is difficult for both employee and employer.

"It is particularly concerning to be potentially losing this element of the workforce at a time when many museums are thinking about being more diverse and international. This situation only applies to some members of course.

"In terms of concerns about the future workforce, some of our larger members have significant numbers of overseas staff in non-specialist roles, the majority of whom are from the EU."

Anonymous, local authority museum, England, since relocated

“The feeling that Britain neither valued nor wanted my contribution led to a state where I didn't merely feel excluded, I actively stopped participating in life in the UK.

“It is important to me to express, however, that although I felt I had no other choice but to leave Britain and return to Germany, I was absolutely heartbroken.

“I lost my home, which is why this experience has been so bitter. It has made me quite touchy about these processes, where silence (and there was mostly silence apart from a few articles in The Guardian and the 'I am an Immigrant' campaign) makes us complicit in the negative and exclusive environment (or 'hostile' environment, as Theresa May called it) that is being created.

“The sector and museums should have taken a stand on this a long time ago, by giving a voice to immigrants and EU nationals and speaking up on their behalf, in addition to highlighting the contributions they make.

“In my view, this is especially true since the sector and museums in all other circumstances make such claims of being inclusive and relevant. In this case, they really have been neither.

“The sector, and especially the Museums Association, should now quantify and report on the contribution to the sector that EU nationals make, and speak out directly and publicly against the divisive and dismissive language used regarding EU nationals and their situation, also in terms of EU nationals as "immigrants".

“Let colleagues who are EU nationals actively know that you recognise that something is happening to them in your country that is not what you want to happen - acknowledgment matters even if the situation is out of your hands."

Anonymous, local authority museum, England

“At the moment it is just speculation, but there is a worry about the future. Both colleagues and other friends are thinking about applying for residency before things become more difficult. We should be getting together and having a proper discussion about this and push for some action.”

Anonymous, independent museum, Scotland

“After living in the UK for 20 years I relocated to Scotland as I no longer felt welcome in England. I wanted to move to a place where people share my values and as an Eastern European I feel welcome.

“I have Italian and Greek colleagues who are also extremely concerned about the future. Pay levels in museums are low and if we move to a points-based system then it will make things very difficult.

“There is a lot of tension, anxiety and uncertainty.”

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