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Posts Tagged ‘Brexit’

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 [1].  Since I will not be there, I want to explain my decision in this post [2].

 

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 [3].

 

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 [4].

 

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 [5]. 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.

 

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

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It is great to see American museums, national heritage organisations and professional organisations  mount a resistance against the divisive and dangerous policies of the new Trump Administration. And it is great that museums and heritage professionals as well as institutions elsewhere discuss these same issues and show solidarity.

 

However, we must ensure that for those of us outside the United States this doesn’t become mere tokenism. Trump’s immigration ban mustn’t become another Lampedusa Cross. It is all too easy to make grand gestures across the ocean while ignoring what is happening in front of our own gates. And many museums are still ignoring what is happening in their own countries. The very public outcry against another country’s issues makes the silence against our own issues that much more damaging. We must take this opportunity not only to show solidarity, but to take a hard look at ourselves.

 

Take this example [1]: A briefing published after the EU referendum in June last year was the first time I am aware of that the British Museums Association (MA) even acknowledged the damaging tone of the debate. Their condemnation of it, if you can even call it that, was tame at best. They wrote, ‘we are concerned that the tone of the referendum debate has made many museum workers, volunteers and visitors from ethnic minorities and/or other European countries feel unwelcome in the UK. This is not the tone that we want to set for a diverse and vibrant culutral sector..’ (p.1). Then, on 1 February, a full seven months after the referendum, the MA’s website editor via Twitter invited EU nationals working in British museums and worried about Brexit to email him, giving the first official acknowledgement by the MA that Brexit concerns more than funding for museums [2].

 

Some of you may not be aware of the personal impact of the decision for Brexit on people in Britain who are from the EU. Have a read here and you will realise that it very much is similar to some of the stories that we have all heard about Trump’s immigration ban. And that is why in my view, the questions the MA should be asking are not,  ‘What can/should museums do re immigration ban? Time to take a stand?’ [the MA’s Director on Twitter, 29 January, see also note 3], but rather: Why hasn’t the MA issued a statement yet to condemn the British Government’s use of EU nationals as bargaining chips? Why did the MA not issue a statement during the divisive EU referendum debate to make clear it didn’t support its tone? Why was there no statement about the equally divisive policies in Britain that targeted Muslims and immigrants?

 

I am fully aware that ‘taking a stand’ isn’t as easy as it sounds for museums on their home turf. At the beginning of the year there was a brief moment when Germany seemed on the brink of making the utterly unacceptable term ‘Nafris’ commonplace, and a comment in our local newspaper was part of that. But I didn’t say a public word about it, and I didn’t insist that our museums communicate that labels of any kind had no place in our buildings and that we simply welcomed ‘people’ [4]. I was too worried, too insecure still in my role. But I am aware that in doing so, I failed. Simple as that.

 

My point is that we must keep looking critically at our actions at home. We cannot hide behind gestures that are aimed rather far away from our own spheres of influence. These actions do count, yes, for in a globalised and interconnected world what happens in one place has impact elsewhere, and what is seen elsewhere is seen in our neighbourhoods too. However, these actions become hypocrisy if they are not matched by our actions on our doorsteps.

 

I wonder what the MA will do with the feedback it now, finally, is soliciting from EU nationals in Britain. I live in anticipation of a strongly worded statement in their support. They deserve it.

 

Notes
[1] I don’t mean to keep targeting the UK Museums Association. It’s just that I’ve spent the better part of my professional career, and an important part of my personal life, in Britain. I’m beginning to slowly extract myself from there, but it’s a long process. And of course, I’m still affected by what happened in the lead up to and because of the referendum. If that hadn’t played out the way it was allowed to, I  may still be home in Britain. You have to forgive a woman for being bitter about that.

[2] In the December 2016 issue of the Museums Journal, an article on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland focuses yet again first on funding, and then cross-border tourism and collaboration with the Republic of Ireland. “Brexit could be a severe blow for arts in Northern Ireland.” P 12/13.

[3] It is possible that she aimed her question only at American museums. But I believe that what we ask of others, we must ask of ourselves as well.

[4] ‘Nafris’ was applied to young, aggressive men of North-African descent travelling in large groups. I do not question the necessity in situations like German New Years eve parties to use some kind of profiling based on empirical evidence – anything else would be stupid. And internally, when things must move quickly, label these groups by whatever name you think you must. But.do.not.use.it.in.public. Then it becomes a label and a stigma applied to all people who match one or more of those criteria: North-African, young, man. And that’s when it becomes inacceptable and divisive. I’m surprised we even had to have the discussion, brief as it may have been.

 

 

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