I would normally consider it my duty and responsibility to attend the Interpret Europe (IE) conference in Scotland taking place from 3 to 6 October . Since I will not be there, I want to explain my decision in this post .
I disagree with the decision to hold IE’s first annual conference after the vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom. It is true that Interpret Europe does not define what constitutes ‘Europe’ for its purposes. However, much of IE’s work is focused on the frameworks of the EU and much has been made of recent successes in working with EU institutions and representatives – and rightly so .
I do not believe in an abstract sense of ‘Europe’. The only European nation there is is the European Union. The only European citizenship there is is citizenship of the EU. And so I support Pulse of Europe in defining ‘Europe’ exclusively as the ‘EU’. I support their fight, which is a fight for the EU, and not any other construct of ‘Europe’. It is now more than ever that we must stand up for this project that is the European Union .
Going to the UK now sends the wrong signal, as far as I’m concerned. It suggests that when all is said and done, ceasing to be a member of the EU will change nothing – you will still be part of ‘Europe’, which is why Interpret Europe will come to you for a European Conference on Heritage Interpretation.
I know that some in IE see going to the UK at this point in time as a symbol of defiance, a gesture of resistance by the cultural sector. It is meant to say, You will not divide what belongs together. But there is a deep irony in this. The cultural sector in Britain was woefully complacent during the EU referendum. To anyone paying attention, it had been clear for months, if not years, that the political climate in the country had changed, and Brexit was a real possibility. From UKIP to the Immigration Act, things had been happening in the UK that went against everything the cultural sector claimed to stand for: promoting understanding, providing inclusion, supporting equality. And yet there was utter silence from all quarters, publicly and privately.
When the Brexit vote happened, a shockwave went through the cultural sector. Suddenly, people everywhere were saying that they wanted to stay in the EU and that the whole campaign had been reprehensible. I understand the sentiment – trust me, I do. But at the same time I do lack sympathy. The sector not only had its chance, it had a duty. And it did not come up to scratch. So while I feel for British colleagues who now face losing their European citizenship and all the rights that come with it, my concern is for the EU. I want to do everything in my power to protect and nurture the EU. And I am prepared to put everything else secondary, including reassuring British colleagues that they will not be excluded and to that end taking the Interpret Europe conference to their country despite the decision for Brexit.
The matter would be entirely different if the theme of the conference were the social and political responsibility of interpretation in the context of the Brexit vote . We need this kind of critical and uncompromisingly honest self-assessment, because if anything, the Brexit referendum revealed considerable gaps between our ideals of interpretation and our practice. Let’s talk about that. Let’s grapple with what happened, why the cultural sector remained silent, why only a few months before the Brexit vote, British colleagues seemed surprised to hear of my fear and devastation in the face of the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric. Taking a stand is difficult, I know. But there is something seriously and deeply amiss when our vision papers say one thing, and our actions (or lack thereof) something else entirely. For me, the question that will move us forward now is not, ‘How can we stay together?’ It is, ‘How the heck could we let this happen in the first place?’ Because the answers will be important to interpreters everywhere, including in Germany right now.
However, I am not sure I would have returned to Scotland for this conference whatever the theme. The reason is that I cannot bear to go back to the place that was my chosen home, and from which I was expelled by a hostile environment. There are real victims to this failure of our sector to respond to the challenge it faced. I don’t know if it could have prevented the vote for Brexit, and thus my leaving. But it sure would have made a difference to me personally.
Interpret Europe taking its first conference since the vote for Brexit to the very place that rejected Europe and vilified European citizens, without addressing what happened, feels like a personal and professional betrayal all over.
 The reason is that I am IE’s Research Co-Ordinator. Technically, the conference is a joint conference with the British Association of Heritage Interpretation, or AHI. However, it is the only “conference” that IE (co-)hosts this year, and IE’s General Assembly will take place there. The conference’s URL is also the usual http://www.interpreteuropeconference.net/. In other words, it is also IE’s annual conference – there is no other.
 I did briefly mention my concern about taking this conference to Inverness in an email to IE in September 2016. However, I was not involved in previous discussions about the conference, which apparently began in November 2015. The final agreement with AHI wasn’t signed until October 2016 – plenty of time, therefore, to take Brexit into account.
 The notion of “European values” has also been an important aspect of IE’s recent work, and IE point out that these are shared by the Council of Europe also. The Council of Europe is of course larger than the EU.
 I feel so strongly about this that I feel the need to reiterate this point once again: The UK may consider itself to still be a part of Europe after Brexit. That, however, is no Europe that holds any meaning for me. I want the European Union. Not the Council of Europe. The European Union. I want a future for the EU as even closer together, stronger. Not giving up our national identities, but more integrated, a federal union.
 The topic of the conference is ‘Making Connections: Re-imagining Landscapes’. There is no reference to Brexit on the conference website. This, to me, is utterly unacceptable. There has also been the suggestion that a prime motivation for holding this conference in Scotland now was to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of AHI’s The Vital Spark conference. If that is indeed the case, then I am, simply put, speechless. To completely ignore one of the most seismic events since the Second World War in Europe for an anniversary just flies in the face of all our profession supposedly stands for.
10 thoughts on “A Letter to IE Colleagues at the Scotland Conference”
Dear Nicole – whilst entirely empathising with your paper I would just like to say that, as you well know, Brexit hasn’t actually happened yet. Anything that any of us can do to stop it would of course be great. Go well, Charles
Dear Charles, you are of course right and I have changed the post accordingly to more accurately reflect that I mean the vote for Brexit. I wish you good luck trying to stop Brexit itself. All the best, Nicole
Hi. Brexit of course generates a great deal of emotion about identity, nationalism, nationhood, democracy and more. Despite the (in my view) tragedy of Brexit, I do still believe that we need to keep working in all of our lives – professional and private – across borders. That to me makes moral as well as professional sense to me. So I do disagree with your conclusion Nicole.
Also perhaps worth mentioning that this conference is being held in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. And Scotland is currently seeking to find other routes, from the incremental to the fundamental, to return to a greater integration with the EU.
Looking forward to seeing and welcoming many EU representatives in Inverness next week.
Hi Phil, I did not conclude that we shouldn’t be working across borders. I made a specific point about the timing and the theme of this conference held by Interpret Europe. Do you want to elaborate on your response to those points? I would be particularly interested in reading your response to my critique of the British cultural sector’s lack of response during the EU referendum and what we might learn from it as a profession. If not now, during the first European conference in the UK on HI after the Brexit vote, then when?
As for Scotland, it is one of the tragedies in all this that Scotland isn’t actually an independent country. It is a part of the UK, by democratic choice, and therefore the regional vote for Remain makes no difference to my argument. But good luck to you trying to avoid Brexit for Scotland.
I applaud your courage for saying this and your stand on the issue of the lack of cultural sector’s response during and after the EU referendum. I have been waiting for the conferences, for the journals, for the exhibitions – all I can see is that people are afraid to lose their funding, terrified of their trustees and most of all of the govt. Britain doesn’t do successful revolt, and much of the population is largely ignorant of how flawed a democracy it is and is apparently resigned to letting the entitled ones rule, no matter how badly. You may have missed Boris Johnson’s absurd article on 15th Sept where he said “When you go to the British Museum, you visit the world’s greatest thesaurus of global culture, and a place that attracts more visitors than the entire tourist industry of 10 other EU countries that I will not mention. So don’t you tell me that we are turning our backs on the world. It is not physically or emotionally possible.” This statement is exactly the problem – not only is it patronising and rude, he neglected to say that that thesaurus of global culture was begged, borrowed and stolen, often collected against local peoples’s wishes and is a monument to British imperialism. A young Somali woman at the Rethinking Challenging Histories conference at which you gave a paper spoke out powerfully against the BM’s attitude that they were doing her a favour to let her access her cultural heritage – mainly to meet funders’ demands. There is, and has ever been, so many silences in the UK cultural sector.
As an Australian working as a heritage consultant I took UK citizenship because it was European. I am also disillusioned with what has happened here and will be returning to Australia permanently next year as I no longer wish to be part of a country so hostile to others and so unwelcoming to most. UK without Europe holds no appeal. I joined the committee of my local EU Alliance to fight the Remain battle, I have marched, written letters, signed petitions, attended meetings and harrassed my Tory MP and will do so until I leave. The cultural sector’s silence is a reflection of the silences of the vast bulk of the population who are cowed by the abuse of the word democracy, passively waiting their fate, who do not march, who do speak out, who do nothing. They are hoping things won’t change or a miracle will save them from Brexit but there will be no miracle as far as I can see. Farage, Brexit, Trump, Charlottesville, Barcelona, the AfD ascendancy, Erdogan … we need the EU more than ever. I support your stand although Inverness will be the loser.
I’m sorry to hear that you have decided to leave the UK also. I hope your ties to Australia are still strong; it’s difficult to go ‘back home’ otherwise.
I am one hundred percent with you when it comes to waiting for the conferences, the journals, etc. My suspicion is that it will be non-British colleagues who write about this, once they have pulled through this emotional turmoil. It’s been a year since I have left the UK, and I am still finding my feet.
I am not sure why it is that so few British colleagues – and friends – acknowledged and acknowledge not only what happened, but what is still happening. There have been analyses on the impact of the Empire narrative on British culture, Emma Waterton et al for example fairly recently, and it would be interesting to see if the same plays out in the silence we have observed.
I cannot stay silent on this, even if I seem to upset a lot of British colleagues, and others for that matter. And this is for the reasons you mention at the end: Trump, Charlottesville, Barcelona, the AfD…Things are happening *right now* that terrify me. I often find myself wondering if this is what it felt like just before the last two World Wars that shook Europe. Did people think they were doing enough? Did they believe their democracy was a secure safeguard? Did they think their own liberal, egalitarian values were shared so widely that they no longer needed to be defended? I don’t know, but I’d rather not stand by silently.
I care about the profession of interpretation and I think it has an important role to play in all of this. We just need to be self-critical.
Thank you for your support! And good luck to you,
we are colleagues, friends for years (almost ten) thus I hope you will not mind my strong reaction on your very recent post, after all in your post you asked for reactions.
While I could understand your post is personal your opening sentence do mention that you, as the IE Research Co-ordinator will not attend the Interpret Europe (IE) conference in Scotland this October, in following days. I hope you are aware with this opening sentence the one entire post might be read differently.
Straight to the point, I find your post pretty incorrect (i.e. explaining just one side of the coin), and on some layers almost (personally) insulting. The first thing in yours analyse/arguments for not coming to the Scotland implicate that the IE made its decision to go to UK (Scotland) after the Brexit. This is so untrue, the IE Supervisory Committee already in the fall of 2015 decided the IE 2017 Conference will take place in the Scotland. Why some obstructions within the IE existed in the meantime toward making the final agreements with the AHI (will not go into this details) those certainly did not have any connection with the Brexit and the Brexit referendum final results. It went, sadly with some other frustrations (of some IE people, certainly not all) with anything coming from the UK where the Brexit results only served as an extra argument why Scotland is not the right place. As already mentioned in previous reply even if the Brexit could be an argument against the Scotland it is very shallow argued since the majority in Scotland (as in some other parts of the UK) voted in favour of the EU. But you are ignoring this, and you argue Scotland is not independent state. Well, you know what, nor Croatia was independent state before 1992, nor it was the EU country before July 2013. The things change over time. Let me remind you here that the IE conference in 2013 took place in Croatia, which I gladly organised, when it was not the EU country! None questioned it, nor the EU was the main theme.
Even more, and I do come to something which is my personal disappointment with your argument. Your experienced some ‘frustrations’ with Brexit but could you compared this with frustration/suffers of people from Bosnia, or Croatia indeed, or Serbia, or Ukraine recently etc. We all are hyper-sensitive to our own frustrations, that’s normal & understandable. However in your post you are arguing for, kind of the ‘Interpret Europe of the European Union’, not of the Council of Europe (as you are clearly saying, you are not interested with other concepts of Europe). I am not sure are you are aware that by this exclusive approach you are eliminating all interested people from countries like Bosnia, Serbia or Ukraine (just to name those I mentioned in previous sentence) the same way you are eliminating the conference in Scotland this year will bring not only people from the EU but from the UK who are keen and interested in cooperation, and the EU values.
I am not 100% sure you are aware that by challenging existing concept (conference in Scotland), which (looks like) irritate you a lot by arguments you are presenting (foremost those you are looking for the EU perspective only) you indirectly, or directly challenged my contribution toward the IE as Supervisory Board member when Croatia was not part of the EU. Does this ever cross your mind, not my case of course but that diverse readings will exist on something which is straightforward to you, where we both know things are never straightforward.
Maybe you do not see distinction I am talking about, but to illustrate = what I suppose to say to my colleagues from Bosnia, Serbia or e.g. Armenia out of your post as the IE Research Co-ordinator. That they need to stay on hold until their countries become the EU country since you/IE (?) have different understanding of Europe, and European values. This is unfair, dangerous and extremely exclusive I would say, not sure how you would interpret it. It sounds like either you are with us, or against us which reminds of something so not European.
What I am extra extremely sad about in your post is the fact that you, instead ‘giving hands’, even if you are not happy with existing political situation in the UK as the result of the Brexit, you are calling for a boycott, a ‘burning bridges’ approach toward anyone in the UK, including Scots. Why, why? My understating of heritage interpretation/interprets role is that it/we are always building bridges, never burning them no matter how situation is hard (and you my bet we in the SE Europe had/have experiences with hard situations), no matter of our personal challenges or frustrations. But maybe not all of us share this idea.
Sincerely hope Nicole you will not mind my sincere comment here, on your recent post. It was hard not to react, no matter I am in advance aware you will not like all reflections I done. But honestly those always, sometimes on the long ride, do pays off.
Thank you for your comment. As you suspected, I do not agree with it, but it is the exchange of opinions that I am most interested in, not agreement with my views. I respect and value yours, so I will endeavour to respond in detail and with respectful honesty. I’ll quote from your comment, not to be a pain, but to make sure it’s clear what I am responding to.
‘I hope you are aware with this opening sentence the one entire post might be read differently.’
I’ve changed it to make it clearer. I’m not sure whether in your eyes that changes your comment; I’ll treat it as if it didn’t, for in my eyes, the reference to my being IE’s research coordinator doesn’t change what I’ve written.
‘This is so untrue, the IE Supervisory Committee already in the fall of 2015 decided the IE 2017 Conference will take place in the Scotland.’
Please see Note 2 – I specifically acknowledge and reference this there. I also reference that the final agreement wasn’t signed by AHI until October 2016 and conclude that there was ‘plenty of time, therefore, to take Brexit into account.’ What you haven’t done in your response to my post is actually respond directly to my key point: why wasn’t/isn’t Brexit a topic of this conference? What are the reasons for this decision to exclude Brexit as a topic? Then, perhaps, we can continue a meaningful discussion.
‘Your experienced some ‘frustrations’ with Brexit but could you compared this with frustration/suffers of people from Bosnia, or Croatia indeed, or Serbia, or Ukraine recently etc.’
I am genuinely not sure what you are suggesting here. Are you weighing one group’s frustration/suffering against another’s? Are you saying that compared to what people in war-torn countries have experienced, the experience of EU citizens in the UK is not important and therefore needn’t be considered? Where would that leave us, not the least as interpreters? Are we absolved, then, from paying attention, taking responsibility and responding? I really cannot imagine that is what you mean.
‘However in your post you are arguing for, kind of the ‘Interpret Europe of the European Union’ […] by this exclusive approach you are eliminating all interested people from countries like Bosnia, Serbia or Ukraine […]’
I guess I *am* arguing for an IE of the EU, yes. But to leap from the argument I made in my post – that going to the UK *right now*, with the first annual conference after the Brexit vote, sends the wrong signal – to “IE should not take conferences to any non-EU country, including those awaiting or wishing accession to the EU” is a bit much. That is neither what I said, nor is it what I implied. Likewise, to compare the UK, a country that has decided to leave the EU only recently, with any of the countries you mention, all of which have expressed their desire to join the EU, is questionable. In fact, I would invite you again to respond to the point I raised in my post and turn the question around: why *should*, in your view, Bosnia, Serbia or the Ukraine join the EU, when all the signals we are sending are that the EU doesn’t matter all that much? *That* is the point I made. I wrote specifically that, at this specific moment in time, first conference, country that voted for Brexit, we are sending the wrong signal. If you disagree with that, then tell me why – please, I want to hear it. I also made this point on the basis of one important premise: that the EU is important. The EU is the only organisation in my view able to meaningfully bring the different nations together. It is the EU to which we owe freedom of movement, which I consider one of the most fundamental reasons why there is more exchange and peace now between its member states than ever before. How important is the EU to you? Why do you – apparently – think we are not sending the wrong signal at this specific point in time?
‘It sounds like either you are with us, or against us which reminds of something so not European.’
You know, while I have already written above why I disagree with how you arrived at this conclusion, I do actually think that there is a question in this that we in the EU need to discuss. It’s not a question of ‘for’ or ‘against’ us. Pulse of Europe argue that we have taken the EU for granted, and that it is time to stand up for it. The question I think we need to ask is, what does that actually mean? It does not, to me, mean being ‘against’ someone else. But it *does* mean being ‘for’ the EU. Those are two very different things, and I would love the exchange with others to form my opinion of what this being ‘for’ the EU might look like. That, incidentally, is a fundamental function of interpretation to me. Exchange.
‘[…] you are calling for a boycott, a ‘burning bridges’ approach toward anyone in the UK, including Scots.’
Really, Darko, where am I calling for a general boycott or a ‘burning bridges’ approach? I am talking about a specific conference with a specific theme at a specific point in time. Had IE gone to the UK next year I wouldn’t have written a single word.
‘My understating of heritage interpretation/interprets role is that it/we are always building bridges, never burning them no matter how situation is hard (and you my bet we in the SE Europe had/have experiences with hard situations), no matter of our personal challenges or frustrations.’
I raised another point in my post that to me as an interpreter is more important than what signal this conference sends regards the EU. I wrote that had the topic of the conference been ‘the social and political responsibility of interpretation in the context of the Brexit vote’, then the matter would be entirely different. It would be different because it would examine what actually happened, because the results from that examination are crucial in moving our profession forward. It is so easy to write that HI is about ‘building bridges’. Building bridges how? And with whom? You again reference indirectly the conflict situations in SE Europe. Maybe those hard conflicts are truly the only ones you are willing to acknowledge. Maybe to you, the disenfranchisement and social exclusion of three million EU citizens in the UK is not a conflict worth dealing with as interpreters. Maybe you truly think that we need not build bridges with those people, and ask where we let them down (and ask how the Brexit vote could happen). I think differently. I will not wait for the next war before I consider myself professionally called upon to take responsibility, whatever that responsibility may be. Debating that responsibility could have – should have been the topic of this conference, in my view. I now live in Germany, where a right-wing party has just found its way into our parliament. You have dismissed my personal ‘frustration’ in the UK, but let me tell you that this personal experience has made me realise that words come cheap to our profession. I absolutely refuse to stand by silently while some AfD politicians will now try to vilify my fellow, non-German-born citizens. Their experience in Germany to you may be a mere ‘personal frustration’ also. I know that to them it will be devastating, frightening, a marginalisation. I will build my bridges with them, and for that, I want to look critically at where my profession failed, and learn from that, so that I can be more successful in the future. I’m done with words. I want actions that deliver in that regard.
Dear Darko, I hope that we will meet in person again soon to have an actual conversation about this. Until then, please take my words in the same spirit that I have taken yours: coming from a person whose views I have always known to be sincere.
All the best,
Firstly, on personal level, Peter and I are profoundly sorry that you felt so alienated by the Brexit referendum. We can assure you that many millions of UK residents with an internationalist outlook also feel alienated by the process and the UK government response. We are also deeply upset by the xenophobic response of a small minority to immigrants and foreign nationals. Sadly as you highlight these extreme reactions are not restricted to the UK and are a common problem across Europe at the moment. Many of us continue to actively campaign about both issues.
Encouraging tolerance and understanding of other people, cultures, traditions and religions is something that as interpreters and as citizens we have encouraged for many years and we hope will continue to do into the future.
Now, from me …
Thank you for the edits to this post. You have made important changes that make my response shorter (but possibly not short enough!). I would still like to see a clearer statement that these are your personal views.
I think you should have mentioned that UK natural heritage organisations were active and clear during the build-up to EU referendum. They spoke out strongly about the importance of the EU. They flagged up, both through campaigning and advocacy, the major benefits of EU habitat and species legislation as well as EU funding. They pointed out that these structures that underpin nature conservation in the UK which would be imperilled by a Brexit vote. They did not win their corner, but they fought it and deserve credit.
You raise many profound personal and political issues here – of belonging and non-belonging, political difference, self and national determination, activism and the role of interpretation in those. Big stuff indeed. Too big, I would argue for interpretation, a blunt instrument in working for social change. I look forward to discussing that and other related issues in detail at the 2018 IE Conference in Hungary on ‘Heritage and identity’. A timely topic, indeed – that seems more painfully so as I write the day after the police violence in Catalonia.
More immediately I am, of course, looking forward to our European Conference in Inverness. We are looking forward to welcoming this great gathering of interpreters and their wide-ranging issues passions and experience. For many of us this is the fulfilment of long held hope. Our joint conference committee has set out an exceptional programme with room for many, many things.
I wonder whether, if you had posted this earlier, you could have achieved the debate on ‘the social and political responsibility of interpretation in the context of the Brexit vote’ that you wish for. I suspect you could, but we will never know. I wonder what you hoped to achieve by posting it just before the conference.
Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post and thank you for your kind words at the beginning. In the following, I’ll do as I did when answering Darko and quote from your comment to make it clearer what I am responding to.
‘I would still like to see a clearer statement that these are your personal views.’
I am genuinely wondering why? I think my post was clear in this regard even before I made the change of putting the reference to my being Research Co-ordinator in the Notes. Also, it states clearly on my About page that views are my own and not those of any organisation, and it has done so for years. Furthermore, I think it is absurd to believe there is any realistic danger that anyone could take my post as some official statement by IE – *against* IE. So why should another statement be required to the effect that these are my *personal* views? What difference would it make? Am I, as a mere member, allowed to say what I mustn’t say as a Co-ordinator? Do you perceive some kind of disloyalty if I, being Co-Ordinator, criticise a decision that IE has made? The irony is that if I weren’t co-ordinator I wouldn’t have written this post in the first place. I feel bad about not being in Inverness *because* I am co-ordinator, and because one of the directors of the organisation asked me specifically whether I, as co-ordinator, couldn’t bring myself to attend. I even offered to resign at that point. Clearly if I cared less, I could have saved myself a lot of hassle.
‘I think you should have mentioned that UK natural heritage organisations were active and clear during the build-up to EU referendum. […] They did not win their corner, but they fought it and deserve credit.’
You are right that I haven’t done so in this post. I mentioned in several previous posts that the Museums Association published articles on the economic benefits of the EU. I didn’t mention that here again either. These are all actions in support of the EU – absolutely and credit to them for that. They are not quite the benefits of the EU that I would champion, but be that as it may.
My focus was somewhat different, however. In my post, I don’t criticise the cultural sector in Britain so much for not standing up for the EU as for not standing up for – and delivering – its more immediate goals: what you call ‘encouraging tolerance and understanding of other people, cultures, traditions and religions’. But I see that I could have done more to divide and discuss the two aspects. Point taken.
‘Too big, I would argue for interpretation, a blunt instrument in working for social change.’
Am I arguing for interpretation for social change? I don’t think so, although social change could certainly be an outcome of the balanced representations I advocate elsewhere. What I *am* saying is that our profession makes a lot of claims – promoting understanding etc. – which the events in the UK have called and are calling into question given the response from the sector. I’m being critical, yes, and that seems to offend a lot of people. I would in turn ask: why? Are we taking all those claims back? Are we limiting our claims of the impact of interpretation to something less politically, socially and culturally relevant? Or are we/should we be saying: let’s learn from it? I would say, let’s learn.
‘I wonder whether, if you had posted this earlier, you could have achieved the debate on ‘the social and political responsibility of interpretation in the context of the Brexit vote’ that you wish for.’
As a theme for the conference? I doubt it. When I mentioned my concerns about the conference to someone in IE in September 2016, indicating that I would not attend, it wasn’t followed up. Had there been the potential for these concerns to be taken into account, I am sure they would have been.
‘I wonder what you hoped to achieve by posting it just before the conference.’
Well, I’ve now tried again to explain, since my post apparently isn’t clear enough on this matter. But I am seriously interested in understanding what you, and others, seem to think I ‘hoped to achieve’. You clearly don’t think it was simply to tell people why I’m not there.