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Museums must engage in the Brexit debate – whether they like it or not

7 March 2016

Like the daughter that David Cameron accidentally abandoned in a pub toilet, culture could be the forgotten child in the EU referendum campaign. Battles will rage, or at least trundle on, about immigration and sovereignty, and proponents of either side might occasionally remember to cite ‘our common European heritage’ on one side, or the need to ‘reassert British cultural values’ on the other. But in all probability no-one will be talking about museums.

And a lot of people within the cultural sector will be fine with that. The largely liberal bubble that is the arts might be happy to sit this one out, and duck below the parapet with claims that culture is neutral, and this one isn’t for us, thank you.

That would be a shame. There is more than you might think at stake for arts and culture in this referendum, and there is certainly a debate to be had about what the cultural sector stands to lose or gain from Brexit.

Let’s look at the money to start with. Hard cash figures are curiously hard to come by, but we know that European Creative Funding pushed €7 million into UK events such as theatre, festivals and the arts in 2015. This pales into comparison with the EU Regional Development Funds and Structural Funds that come Britain’s way – some £9.3 billion between 2014–20 – of which some has gone to cultural projects, such as the £8.9 million that went towards construction of the Imperial War Museum North in Salford.

I saw some of the benefits of European funding in Leicester last month at the new Richard III heritage centre and his fetching new tomb in Leicester Cathedral. The funding for the transformational upgrade works to the new square that links the two had come from the EU – money well spent on a cultural project that will drive broader economic growth. And let’s not forget the plethora of European research networks in arts and sciences that cast light on our culture and our collections that would also find themselves on the chopping block in the event of a departure from the EU.

So there’s a lot to lose. What might be gained for arts and culture remains to be seen. The Out campaign has yet to set out a case showing the cultural benefits – financial or otherwise – of leaving. Would alternative funding be found from the savings we make on our EU subscription? Or would that money be spent elsewhere, leaving the arts and culture sector worse off?

If our major cultural institutions fail to ask these questions, they will be failing their audiences. Museums are in a great position to contribute to the wider public debate about what Britain’s relationship with Europe should look like. Our collections are full of objects that help to tell the story of Britain’s chequered history of European engagement – from the Napoleonic Wars to the Lampedusa Cross. More than anyone else, we can ask what nationality, identity and sovereignty really mean for the UK.

Just as Tate Britain’s ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition has helped to change perspectives on our relationship with Empire: we could be using the referendum as an opportunity to change perspectives on the contemporary European debate. Good programming would allow audiences to see the European debate in a historical and social context, as well as the simple transactional context that has dominated discussion so far.

It’s early days in the campaign yet – but these debates need to be had more fully. If the cultural sector doesn’t do so, it could be stuck in the pub while the European party drives off into the sunset.