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What a no deal Brexit could mean for UK museums

By the time we arrive at the second Brexit deadline on 31st October this year, it will be exactly a year since widespread reports in the media highlighted the concerns of museum leaders about the effect of a no-deal Brexit on the nation’s cultural institutions. Memos to the government from some of the country’s leading museums, made available via Freedom of Information, showed the extent of their fears about the damage Brexit would cause to Britain’s cultural heritage sector.

One of their major concerns was that even leading museums would find it impossible to host “blockbuster exhibitions”, as V&A Director Tristram Hunt argued, due to import taxes that could total up to £25m alone for his own institution. Hunt talked of compromising Britain’s “soft power” and influence through no longer being able to host exhibitions such as David Bowie Is and Pink Floyd, which had immense appeal both nationally and internationally.

Museum closures possible after no-deal Brexit

The V&A memo to the government even suggested that temporary closure might follow a no-deal Brexit. Plans for expansion, including the development of the V&A’s proposed Stratford venue, would also be threatened due to potential staffing problems and a predicted drop in tourist numbers.


Above: V&A Could temporarily close under a Hard Brexit (image Shutterstock)


Other UK museums voiced similar concerns. The Natural History Museum cited a possible loss of £2m in research funding, suggesting that a potential 15 per cent reduction in the number of overseas visitors would mean a loss of £2.4m in revenue.

These are substantial concerns from leading institutions. The threat Brexit poses to the rest of the sector is perhaps even greater, as Bernard Donoghue, director of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions informed Museums Journal as early as August 2018.

Donoghue stated that he was not at all optimistic about the UK’s ability to replace EU funding for the arts, including museums and galleries. Northern Ireland’s heritage sector would be particularly badly affected, he argued, with 40% of their visitors coming from over the border in Eire.

“Doomsday scenario” feared by UK and Irish tourism

The Irish Tourism Industry Confederation confirmed this, warning of a “doomsday scenario” for tourism in the worst case of a no-deal Brexit. Initial losses post-Brexit in that case were estimated at €260m (£232m). Ireland could lose an estimated €500m in the years immediately following. The confederation, a cross-border organisation, feared that the return of a hard border, with passport checks, visas or electronic authorisations required, would inevitably lead to a massive drop in visitor numbers.

In fact, given either deal or no-deal, Brexit would still cause major problems in a sector which had helped to make tourism one of Northern Ireland’s great success stories in the wake of the Good Friday agreement.

A year on, for even more museums no deal Brexit believe is the doomsday scenario that is increasingly likely. New PM Boris Johnson’s commitment to leaving the EU makes preparation for a no-deal Brexit on 31st October 2019 a priority for museums. While Johnson has made assurances of funding for some of the public sector, he has been worryingly silent with regard to Britain’s culture and heritage institutions.

Will pre-referendum promises be implemented?

This is all the more troubling given the promises made by leading leave campaigners prior to the 2016 referendum. Pro-Brexit Tories Dominic Raab, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson himself had signed an open letter stating that Brexit would not affect culture and arts funding.

However, many museums, unconvinced by this, took the precaution to begin the planning process for no-deal long before October 2018. Opposition politicians also remained both sceptical and critical of the entire process. Ben Bradshaw, former culture secretary for Labour, described Brexit as a “mess” created by an ideologically fixated elite pursuing its course in a “half-baked way”.

Bradshaw also touched on a key issue with regard to museums and the culture sector in general. Describing the UK’s museums as “brilliant” with some of the “most extraordinary collections” globally, he highlighted their capacity to show an outward-looking vision from which both Britain and the rest of the world could benefit.

“Turning inward” fears

Bradshaw’s fear that Brexit’s affect on museums would result in a “closing off and turning inwards” resonated with museum staff. Some commentators such as Alistair Brown, Museums Association policy officer, argue that the cultural debate around Brexit is in fact a philosophical one: museums by their very nature are internationalist, reliant on good inter-relationships between institutions and a commitment to cultural exchange.

It’s not surprising then that a poll in 2016 organised by the Creative Industries Federation revealed that 96% of the membership, including museums, supported remaining in the EU. Alistair Brown’s same discussion piece for the website “The UK in a Changing EU” In January 2019 also posed some thought-provoking questions on the role of museums.

If the values of the museum’s “audience” differ from those of the museum, what then? Describing it as “an interesting challenge”, Brown said that how museums dealt with the issue of this cultural divide post-Brexit might well prove to be the most important question of all.

Views from abroad

Scepticism – and pessimism – in the UK museum sector is reflected in comments from European counterparts. Earlier this year, for example, as the March deadline loomed, the opening of the long-awaited Tate Britain exhibition Van Gogh and Britain produced panic behind the scenes due to fears about some of his masterpieces being trapped in the UK after Brexit.

The exhibition of course went ahead, but only after diplomatic exchanges between British and Dutch officials at government level assured lenders that their works would be returned safely to them without import duties after the event. It was EU tax-related legislation specifically introduced to relate to returned items that successfully resolved the issue, to the relief of all those involved.

Wobke Hooites of the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands commented on the need for clarity about what would happen while a piece was on loan. The uncertainty for museums no deal Brexit would cause in future exchanges was an issue for all museum curators. Any delay in letting items into the country or releasing them again clearly adds bureaucratic costs to the presentation of any exhibition.

Delayed Brexit simply maintains the uncertainty around current successful collaborations with Europe such as the Ashmolean’s exhibition, Last Supper in Pompeii now on show, a presentation made possible with the support of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and the Pompeii Archaeological Park.

House of Lords report backed concerns

Uncertainty about the effects of Brexit on museums and other cultural institutions received backing from a House of Lords committee report in 2018. In Brexit: Movement of People in the Cultural Sector, it was stated that the loss of reciprocal exchange for movement of people between the UK and EU meant the UK might see a decline in the skilled workers the cultural sector needed.

At the time of writing, a UK government statement has just advised that EU free movement rules will come to an end right away if the 31st October deadline sees a no-deal Brexit. This will inevitably affect the negotiating of any museum currently forward planning exhibitions in conjunction with EU partners.

In summary, it’s hard to see how the effect on museums could be anything other than costly if the UK, in that well-used phrase, “crashes out” of the EU at the end of October. To date, no-one in the arts and culture sector has come up with anything positive to say about a no-deal Brexit, while there are negative factors in abundance.

A situation with no winners but plenty of losers? While museums get on quietly with their worst-case scenario planning, it would seem to be so. With regional museums already struggling to survive – Lancashire’s industrial museums come all too readily to mind – the risk of losing some of our museums and heritage centres altogether seems ever more likely.

Those who have the most at stake are, of course, visitors to UK museums large and small. Fortunately, the UK government itself provides some relevant statistics in its survey document relating to the number of people in England visiting museums in 2017/18. In that 12 month period, 49.7% of the population aged 16 and over said they had visited a museum or gallery. Yes, close to half the population of England.

That’s not all of course. The Museums Association estimates that our creative, cultural and heritage sector created industries create exports worth £16.6 billion and an estimated 2 million jobs. It’s a growth sector too, or was. Nearly 7 million people visit the British Museum annually.

Now consider how the landscape would look without museums. It’s almost, but unfortunately not totally, inconceivable. Those of us who work within the sector are as passionate as our visitors about it. That’s our greatest strength, as we face continuing uncertainty around no-deal Brexit.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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