Building the Museum of Brexit
‘The story of Brexit will not get a fair hearing unless we create that space for ourselves’ — Gawain Towler on the plan to make the Museum of Brexit a reality
When a group of likeminded and historically interested types first conceived the idea of a Museum of Brexit in late 2017, it conformed largely to what was then the definition of a museum. The one then promoted by the International Council of Museums (ICOM):
A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.
Ours was an idea based upon Enlightenment concepts of truth, research and the promotion of knowledge. To inform and, if we could manage it, entertain future citizens, students and historians. The subject matter would be about the way in which the UK had regained its constitutional independence after its 40-year entanglement with the European Union. That, and how and why it had got into that entanglement in the first place.
The Museum of Brexit, or one might put it, a museum about sovereignty, was largely dreamed up in the head of the historian, researcher, campaigner, writer and pamphleteer, Dr Lee Rotherham. The idea was hammered out over ale.
The museum sector is actively hostile and was liable to get worse
We believed that the people who had kept the idea of the UK’s independence as a sovereign nation, free from formal political control from elsewhere, Gaitskell’s, “end of a 1000 years of history”, must be remembered. The museum sector is actively hostile and was liable to get worse. Meanwhile academe, where there are Brexit related collections (notably the aural Brexit history produced under the auspices of Anand Menon at the LSE), interests itself with individuals whose memory is assured. We wanted to ensure that it was ordinary people and their continued belief and work for an independent UK who would also be remembered. Memory, as Maupassant puts it, “gives back life to those who no longer exist. It is key that we do not just remember the few heady years leading up to 2016, but the decades long struggle conducted across the country. A struggle conducted in the letter’s pages of local newspapers and the snug bars of pubs.”
The commanding heights of society, the academy, and the museum sector itself are populated by those who were at best antipathetic to Brexit, and more specifically, its supporters. On the other side, the European Union has been funding centres of education, and one might say propaganda, for years. The EU has a PR budget that matches that of Coca Cola. Its centrepiece is the House of European History in Brussels, “a place where a memory of European history and the work of European unification is jointly cultivated.” This cost an approximate £136.5 million to set up. Its annual costs are about €10 million a year. Alongside that MEPs have their Parlamentarium, a few hundred yards away. This cost another £22 million. The EU has long funded a network of Europe Houses across the 27 countries. These were the homes of the “Fathers of Europe”, used as tourist sites but also for political programmes about integrating Europe.
The EU also spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year globally bankrolling academics, students, and universities, mainly via the Jean Monnet programme.
As Eurosceptics we are used to taking on Goliath
The European University Institute is another. It is home to more than 1000 scholars. It hosts the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, the Max Weber Programme for Postdoctoral Studies, and the School of Transnational Governance, spread over 13 sites. It is nominally independent but in practice so heavily linked to Brussels in terms of staff recruitment, budgets, career progression and institutional ties that pro-EU bias is inevitable.
None of this is healthy for academic integrity, and we want to set up a small counterweight. Our plan is so modest in fact that the annual cleaning bill of the House of European History would cover our ambitions. As Eurosceptics we are used to taking on Goliath.
In period since that initial pub meeting, the ICOM has been in consultation over changing its definition. This consultation finishes this month. A final decision on changes will be made in August 2022, after a full four years of tortuous bureaucracy. Given the shifts that have taken place over the past 15 years, and over the last year alone, this concept of the role of the museum in Enlightenment terms will change, and it will change for the worse. The 2019 suggestion:
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people… aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
was hotly debated, but the likelihood is that the definition will have become more, not less, woke in the meantime.
It is in this environment that the Museum of Brexit is opening its major fundraising. We are, I can confirm, still entirely committed to the Enlightenment view. At a time when we are restricted from entering any museum, great or small, it is the perfect time to be launching the campaign. After a year where the stultification of the collective mind, talk of new normal, building back better, insipid cultural leadership, and the cowering of the curatorial mindset, what could be more perfect for the launch?
What we didn’t expect was the vitriol and deliberate, proud, ignorance of those whose psyches have still not recovered from the result of the referendum. The internet was awash with more effluent than the Augean stables. The ineffable Owen Jones, (still looking for purpose in a post-Corbyn world) took to the airwaves to denounce the idea as one designed, “because people think it winds other people up”. Others ranted and raved as the museum trended on UK twitter. Ranted and raved about the idea of a museum!
There were the occasional counter voices. A former Lib Dem MEP offered his archive. One man phoned and quietly announced himself to be “one of the three per cent”. What?
“The Museum Association had a poll amongst its members. A full 97 per cent opposed Brexit.” Ah, yes.
This chap was quietly offering his services. But that poll just shows the mountain that we must climb to get reasonable treatment. The story of Brexit will not get a fair hearing unless and until we create that space for ourselves.
To that end, we are launching our fundraising drive, not for millions but for a few hundred thousand to get the project off the pub table and into reality.
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