How should museums respond to Brexit?
The 2016 AGM of the Midlands Federation of Museums and Galleries explored the implications of Britain’s recent referendum on EU membership, in which the vote to leave the EU surprised many.
The speakers reflecting on Brexit, and its possible impact on the role of the Museum, included the President of the Museums Association, David Fleming, Andrew Lovett, Director of Black Country Living Museum, and Ellen McAdam, Director of Birmingham Museums Trust.
As President of MidFed, Jonathan Wallis warned that we must consider the community impact of Brexit within multi-cultural Britain, which has already been devolved into four regions. He also outlined the importance of sustaining the international partnership, which has the often overlooked impact of supporting the fight against the ongoing trade in illicit objects and antiquities.
David Fleming, President of M.A. and Director of National Museums Liverpool, reflected on the lack of certainty of what happens next and a lack of real understanding of the situation. What does seem certain as an aftermath of the Brexit vote is the distinct rise in race hate crimes against ethnic minority groups in this country. David questioned how museums, as ‘safe spaces’ should respond to this and what this meant for the idea of ‘politically neutral’ museums. Equal rights, racism, and other ‘political’ issues need to be brought into museums in order to explore and challenge them in as we adapt to the new world in which we seem to be living in. Funding is, of course, a major issue with museums benefiting from EU funding, particularly in deprived areas. There still needs to be work done on distribution of funding outside London more fairly to engage those in areas of deprivation.
Andrew Lovett, Director Black Country Museum, spoke about the important role that European and International museum networks play for the independent Museum sector. Brexit has already been discussed by the Museum Directors Group and AIM, who all recognise the importance of the decision for the future of the community in which museums operate. The sudden resignation of Martin Roth as director of the V&A, has been speculated to be a direct result of the referendum result and perhaps already demonstrate the danger we face in losing talent from the workforce.
Andrew acknowledged a sense that, as many museum staff and managers seem to have been on the remain side of the debate, we have lost touch with those communities that we serve. Can we still consider ourselves to be representative of the public if we differ on an issue of such importance as this?
However, Andrew did feel that independent museums have always been quite resilient to sudden changes in the economic and political environment in which they operate and are perhaps better placed to withstand changes than local authority and national counterpart. His direct response, as President of the Association of European Outdoor Museums, has been to demonstrate a continued commitment to Europe though volunteering to host their annual conference at the Black Country Living Museum next year.
Ellen McAdam, Director of Birmingham Museum Trust, also offered a positive message, that the current political and economic climate around us was not a reason for UK museums to stop building on the strengths and partnerships that have been set up across European cultural institutions and sites. Ellen identified the referendum outcome as part of the wider issues that have always affected museums and their identity as cultural bodies. Now we need to ensure that they remain relevant and indispensable within fast changing social and cultural climates. Cities and towns with strong public collections can still be key players within world culture continue to understand the unique value and importance of their buildings and collections as local centres of learning and creativity, serving their own interest groups and local populations. Ellen also felt that as politically neutral spaces, museum can continue to play key role in the promotion and understanding of human history and culture within a wider European context
The discussion that followed focused on the social responsibility and what museums can offer their immediate community audiences in the wake of uncertainty and increasing intolerance. Museums can provide a forum to negotiate the issues thrown up by the referendum, but we need to ensure that the public is being given a real ‘voice’ in the content of museum displays and exhibitions as part of a more inclusive and two-way conversation. We also need to ensure that we remain in touch with our communities and our political climate, and to be brave enough to reflect both the divisions and continuities within our society and its place within Europe, now and in the future.