Some reflections on museums and Brexit

The Brexit vote was met with both surprise and denial by many in the cultural sector. The weekend after the vote the Guardian published the reactions of artists and cultural folk (mostly from London) dismayed that their compatriots had voted (albeit by a narrow margin) to leave the European Union (EU).

Many of us in the arts are feeling bewildered, confused and angry. The dial has turned in a way we find hard to comprehend.

This was great fodder for the Right wing press able to thumb their noses at liberal, metropolitan luvvies out of touch with the People.

The outcome may have been a shock to those in London but it wasn’t to me. Three days before the vote, Labour in Europe hired Derby Silk Mill to hold a rally in support of remaining in the EU. Only a handful of party members turned up to hear Margaret Beckett (former Foreign Secretary) and Alan Johnson (former Home Secretary) make the case for Remain. In the Referendum 57% of voters in Derby decided they wanted to leave the EU.

The Referendum laid bare divisions in the UK of virtually every sort, social, economic, cultural, demographic, geographic. There was no single cause; immigration, inequality, the views of White Working class, the over 55s, the post industrial North or the less educated. Indeed, far more well-off people in the prosperous South East voted to leave than those in the North of England.

So now having had a few months to reflect, I think there are three things which museums could do to respond to Brexit. This involves advocating the rebalancing of the cultural economy, stimulating more and deeper participation and strengthening their roles as civic institutions.

 Rebalancing the Cultural Economy

In England, it wasn’t just London which voted to Remain. Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Newcastle, cities with high local GDP, multiple universities and a younger population voted to stay in the EU.

These areas also have had consistently higher levels of investment in a cultural infrastructure which significantly contributes to other facets of prosperity, such as attracting talent and making a place more liveable. The comparison with post-industrial cities like Sunderland, Bradford and even Derby is stark. Whilst Tate Modern opens a new extension, the Museum of London plans a move to Smithfield and £78m worth of investment heralds the Factory in Manchester, cultural organisations in smaller cities are clinging on for dear life, ravaged by cuts to local government.

As civic spaces, museums are well-placed to contextualise complex contemporary issues like globalisation, inequality and migration – issues upon which many based their vote in the Referendum. There are precious few fora where these matters can be broached with respect and mutual understanding – Museums are genuinely safe spaces for difficult conversations. Yet in places where voter’s views were clearly at odds with the dominant political perspective, many cultural organisations are at their most vulnerable. There is an urgent need to rebalance our cultural capital.

Bridging the cultural gap

To be an effective cultural bridge, museums will have to revitalise their own approach to participation.

Over the past 20 years, museums have made great strides in involving the public in many areas of their work. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Our Museum programme strongly emphasised the need for community participation to go hand in glove with organisational change – from ‘them to us’. The truth is that most community work is still marginalised and sporadic, subject to temporary funding streams whilst those grass roots organisations who immerse themselves in localities live hand to mouth.

Audiences and communities must be placed at the front and centre of organisations. Strengthening participation should be everyone’s role. Museums must commit to resourcing this work more deeply over the long term.

Museums ought to review their own participatory practice. Community work has often been about characterised by ‘deficit-funding’, helping marginalised communities rather than developing their capacities, capability and agency .

Communities are diverse and complicated. They are muddled and made up of individuals who share, disagree, find common cause or show indifference to each other. Some neighbourhoods are diverse, some are monocultural to the point of exclusion but every local council I’ve worked with has been anxious to promote cohesion above all else. This has led to a Pollyannaish approach to multiculturalism.  The result is an aversion to exploring difference and conflict, and a lack of understanding that communities have multiple identities which overlap or disconnect based on elements such as family, neighbourhood, culture and nation.

Despite notable exceptions, such as National Museums Liverpool, one consequence of this approach has been a reticence to confront adequately Britain’s colonial past. Regional museums in the UK are packed full of collections from around the world acquired during the 19th century. ‘Leave’ campaigners spoke of re forging a relationship with the Commonwealth, perhaps we could start with a wholesale critical evaluation of our imperial collections.

Strong Democratic Institutions

The final challenge for museums is to strengthen their value as civic institutions. The referendum campaign had a deleterious effect on public trust towards institutions, from Parliament to the Bank of England. This was exacerbated by UKIP’s anti-establishment schtick, Aaron Banks dismissal of facts and Michael Gove’s mendacious claim that ‘the British people have had enough of experts’. Nevertheless in surveys museums are consistently seen as institutions worthy of public trust.

The Gulbenkian Foundation’s enquiry into the civic role of the arts is timely. Suggesting new practice in a less hierarchal, more networked world. In this landscape museums with their big buildings and collections might appear cumbersome and unable to change. However in a post-referendum context, when so many voted against the insecurities of globalisation, museums offer a familiar and comforting presence.

Building on this level of confidence, museums can help explore our place in our community by connecting civil society with the civic realm. They must strive to be more open and democratic, viewing the public not as consumers but citizens who can participate in every aspect of making culture. Curators should develop their practice with the public, governing bodies should be prepared to discuss ethical dilemmas rather that hide behind commercial confidentiality. Trust is enjoyed only by public consent.

The narrow Brexit vote won’t bring clarity to our international relationships. That will be years in the re-making. In the meantime, above all public institution museums offer people a reflective opportunity to consider their own place in the world.

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2 Responses to Some reflections on museums and Brexit

  1. Pingback: James’ Brexit Arts and Culture Reader – James Doeser

  2. Pingback: What can the cultural sector learn from the Referendum? - Happy Museum Project

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