British Museums and the EU Referendum

I have tried for a week now to pen a dispassionate response to the British Museums Association’s (MA) article in this month’s Museums Journal relating to Britain’s EU Referendum [1]. I can’t. However, I still think that my experiences and views, and my bitterness, can offer something of value not only to British colleagues, but hopefully to others also.


This is a deeply personal and subjective post. I make no apology for it.


Just take a stand already

I don’t actually think the MA needs to take a stand for or against remaining in the EU. But there is a stand to take for an organisation that is fundamentally about culture and society (all of society!) and an organisation too, which, according to its own account, seeks to make a positive social impact for everyone. We’re getting the economic argument everywhere in the current debate, and that is already immensely frustrating to someone like me [2]. I would have liked to see the MA move beyond the question of the financial impact of leaving the EU on museums, and pick up on those things most others leave out. Listening to museums discourse at any other time, we’re led to believe that museums work with groups outside the mainstream, that they are about social cohesion, inclusion, and justice, about providing space for safe debates and engagement with views other than our own. So at the very least I would have liked to see the MA comment on where they stand for example on the one-sided way EU Citizens are being portrayed as mostly a drain on the UK’s social services.


This is not being neutral

I cannot help but feel that most likely, despite declaring that ‘museums are not neutral’, this lack of a clear stand by the MA is meant to be just that: neutral. They probably don’t want to be seen as trying to influence members, and alienate those who might disagree. But this complete silence on those very issues (above) that normally museums claim as their natural territory for making an impact is anything but neutral. This assessment by an associate professor at the London School of Economics expresses eloquently what it feels like to live in Britain at the moment as an EU Citizen, and the questions quite a few of us are asking ourselves right now about this country. By not highlighting and responding to these far-reaching social and political concerns that are raised here, the MA and museums are not only leaving unoccupied a space that in my opinion they should claim, they also suggest that they’re okay with the current state of affairs.


How about something like this?

I’ll make a quick excursion to Germany. Only this week, cultural institutions including museums (!) in Saxony-Anhalt, a state that has been particularly plagued by Pegida and recent gains in the state assembly by the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland party, came together to take a stand. They had the perception that ‘in recent months the political climate in the state has changed and public discussions have taken on an ever sharper tone. During the course of this, callous statements have found their way into these social debates that are unacceptable.’ [3] And so they are displaying banners, visible for everyone, declaring their belief in Article 1 of the German constitution: ‘Human dignity is inviolable.’ To this institutions add their own values that are most important to them, for example, ‘the right to asylum’. This is not mainstream. The refugees for example are not the majority in Saxony-Anhalt. But these institutions stand by them, and they make it known, which is likely to annoy quite a few people in the state. The institutions are happy to have a discussion with them. But they state clearly what values they want to see upheld, and which ones they will defend.


Context, you say?

In the two short paragraphs that end the MA article that set off this outburst, the MA’s policy officer is quoted as saying that the EU referendum provides an opportunity for museums to ‘give the debate a historical and social context’. Now, in the same issue of the journal, there is an interesting exchange on dealing with the legacy of empire [4]. Here, a – to me – very peculiar attitude emerges toward what museums can explore and how [5]. I may be unfair in thinking that this type of approach might be used also by others (the majority) to give context to the EU referendum. And if you come across an exhibition that does more than give a history of the EU and Britain’s relationship with it, go beyond some form of ‘fact-check’ of the arguments put forth by other players, and add more challenge to the mainstream view than an ‘I am an Immigrant’[6] style of display about the contribution of EU citizens to Britain, then do let me know. If, however, this type of exhibition is all that we’re getting, then I do not find this a context worth having. It’s not inclusive, it’s not representative, and it’s not contributing to the critical development of society. This is a mainstream narrative with the most tame of interventions (that would be the ‘I am an Immigrant’ element).


Let’s assume there is a future for us

But let’s imagine Britain stays in the EU, and EU Citizens can continue to live here without having to go through Britain’s famously hostile immigration system. What then? Are we just going to pretend that none of this ever happened? Is the MA suddenly going to become ‘my’ organisation again even though it too was content to ignore how EU Citizens in Britain were treated and represented? Or has instead a veil been irreversibly ripped off Britain’s face and my illusion of belonging? All I know is that silence, ‘neutrality’ and exhibitions like those I described above are not going to heal the wounds [7].




[1] The article focuses on funding: Steel, P., 2016. ‘What would leaving the EU mean for the cultural sector?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 7. The editorial of the journal includes a reference to the referendum around the broad questions of identity, but mostly in terms of what Britain’s identity is. The existence of non-Brits in this country is not reflected.

[2] I’m first and foremost a European (and YES, that is in an ‘EU’ sense, not a loosely and near-meaninglessly defined historical Europe). For me, Europe is about social integration, shared histories, shared culture, and most importantly, a shared present experience. I realised that most forcefully when I lived in the United States. I am reminded of it every time I go across to what Britons call ‘Europe’: the Belgians, the Poles, the French, these are my people. I know that Brits don’t see the EU like that. But I do.

[3] ‘…in den vergangenen Monaten [hat sich] das politische Klima im Land verändert […] und die öffentlichen Auseinandersetzungen [haben] an Schärfe zugenommen […]. Dabei haben sich auch menschenverachtende Töne in die gesellschaftlichen Debatten gemischt, die nicht hinnehmbar sind.’ (my translation)

[4] Mohammad, A. and Smith, A., 2016. ‘The conversation: Are museums doing enough to portray the legacy of British empire?’ In: Museums Journal April 2016, p. 17.

[5] An art curator writes that ‘museums are fundamentally concerned with the details of history, as represented by specific objects’, and therefore, ‘we are perhaps placing too heavy a burden of responsibility on these institutions expecting them to address such a contentious subject [like empire] through individual artworks’. The curator continues that, ‘The challenge is how to address empire in a way that engages with, rather than alienates, the public. There is no point in mounting worthy projects in empty rooms (my emphasis).’

[6] I do in no way mean to belittle this campaign – when it first came around, I was really rather grateful that someone wanted to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric. I do have a slight issue with the fact though that it focuses on immigrants, and suggests that we have to prove we’re ‘good’ immigrants. I firmly believe in integration, but I also believe in host societies questioning their own values and actions. And the fact that this campaign had to be launched in the first place says something.

[7] And again, I apologise to all my so-called ‘BAME’ colleagues, which, let’s be honest here, mostly means ‘non-whites’/’non-European’. I know you’ve known this for a long time. I’m actually thankful, in a really angry sort of way, for this experience I’m having. It’s making me a better museum professional, and a better person, as long as I will remember what this feels like. And I’m determined never to forget.


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