Food for thought: Curatorial perspectives on Brexit

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is a man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience and rebellion that progress has been made. - Oscar Wilde

The United Kingdom’s referendum vote in favor of leaving the European Union (EU) marked a seminal moment in British history. Brexit (“British exit”) triggered a deep emotional response, sending shock waves through the global community because “the sentiments that led to this outcome are by no means a distinctively British phenomenon”1, or a sign of insularity. Indeed, the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson has observed that Brexit is reflective of a wider trend towards global populism: One the one hand, it represents an anti-establishment message that involves “a claim to speak for working people” and “a disparagement of cosmopolitan elites”; on the other hand, it is the symptom of “a call for a return to (an invented) ‘tradition’”, which feeds on “a hostility toward (at least some) immigrants and ethnic others, especially Muslims”.2 So, in other words, Brexit demands a more fine-grained understanding for two reasons: Firstly, it is part of a bigger pattern, belonging to a wider political and ideological movement; and secondly, it stands symbolically for a deeply divided country that struggles to cope with a number of socio-economic disparities in class, education, and geography. In fact, regarding the latter, the UK is said to be undergoing “a full-blown identity crisis”3 as it has become increasingly polarized into winners and losers of globalization.

As far as industries go, however, the UK’s vibrant creative sector is an exception to the “Disunited Kingdom”, with “96% of arts professionals surveyed [supporting] the Remain side”4. It would be a mistake to undervalue this result by reducing it to mere metropolitan elitism because Brexit does indeed pose major challenges to the creative sector’s interconnected web of public funding, private donations, market dynamics, legislation, and free flow of people as well as information.5 Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been a maelstrom of commentary on the practical implications of Brexit, with major foci of debate on three main issues identified: A loss of funding and resources; tighter legislation; and reduced mobility rights.6 However, what has failed to be addressed is that “it is precisely the affective and social dimensions of Brexit that deserve closer attention”7, not least because they reflect a deep rift in society at both national and global level. For example, should it not be of major concern that Brexit will amplify the negative effects of Britain’s austerity measures on the urban-rural divide? One look at the sharp disparity between UK and EU arts funding per capita suffices to recognize the danger signs: While the UK spends “£68.99 per head of population in London, and only £4.58 outside it”8, EU funds beyond the capital averaged £13.02 between 2007 and 2016.9 Already, budgetary restrictions do not paint an optimistic picture for the future of the heritage sector, as this statement by the Art Media Agency illustrates: Several institutions have publicly mentioned the possibility of selling parts of their collection to finance their operations, a situation that cannot be maintained, and that will deplete the English cultural heritage.10

In the context of deepening socio-economic and cultural schisms, one may wonder why museums have done relatively little to engage with Brexit, despite the fact that, as sites of historical and public consciousness, they can “provide [much-needed] social cohesion, rootedness, and identity”11. While, at one time, museums might have been regarded as nonpartisan, over the last decade there has been an “increasing understanding of the museum as both non-neutral and active in shaping the way we perceive, think and act”12. Indeed, the so-called “myth of museum neutrality” is fundamentally flawed for two reasons: Firstly, special interests and agendas strongly impact on museum management, government, curatorial choices, and everyday working practices; and secondly, numerous biases shape the museum’s approach to collection, interpretation, and display.13 Based on this realization, more and more museums have demonstrated “courageous energy”14 to act upon social inequality, institutional marginalization, political injustice, and environmental destruction. The recent rise in museum activism, which is grounded in the morality of an action, only substantiates the above-raised question concerning the lack of museological engagement with Brexit. If, as suggested by the renowned museum scholar Stephen Weil, “the things that make a museum good are its purpose to make a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives”15, then now, in the face of growing inequality, separation, and hostility, museums must aim to harness their full potential to contribute to the discussion on national and European identity. In a few years it will be possible to look back on Brexit with the benefit of hindsight, but what can museums do in order to strengthen a viable democratic society during this time of uncertainty?

In response thereto, this paper will investigate how political curating can inform strategies for engaging with Brexit. Using a case study approach, I will analyze the exhibition Disobedient Objects (2014-2015), which took place at the renowned Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London.16 This case study, in particular, was “not only a collection of disobedient objects but also a model for disobedient curating”17, characterized by a high degree of political efficacy. The V&A exhibition Collecting Europe (2017) will be touched upon as a second case study because its approach – relational and collective – adds another valuable dimension to the discussion. Through an analysis of these initiatives, I hope to give impetus to curatorial tackling of Brexit, thereby aiming to stimulate a vision of Britain post-Brexit.

Disobedient Objects: On the Political Potential of Subversive Curating

Don’t wait to begin, use what you have. – Joseph Beuys

How to Guide: Makeshift Tear-Gas Mask. Illustrated by Marwan Kaabour
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As the name suggests, Disobedient Objects was an exhibition on the history of protest icons, showcasing more than 100 art and design pieces from the late 1970s until now.18 By responding to an “absence of this history within the V&A’s collections and exhibitions”19, the curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon exposed an institutional contradiction, namely: Supposedly inclusive, the V&A was established as a ‘school-room for everyone’, but its view of art and design – commodity-objects of elite production and consumption – has been rather narrow.20 In doing so, they heightened the institution’s critical self-reflection, adopting an emancipatory approach which the sociologist Oliver Marchart has advocated for by stating that “only as an ex/position does an exhibition become a public sphere”21. Essentially, this means that the curatorial function – “the organization of the public sphere”22 – lies in antagonizing the logic of the institution through anti-hegemonic efforts. Regarding Disobedient Objects, the ideological gap between theory and practice “provided the discursive space necessary to destabilize the V&A’s dominant conventions of exhibition, collection, and fundraising”23, meaning it allowed Flood and Grindon to dismantle the normative paradigms that are embedded in institutional ideologies. Practically speaking, this translated into control of museum operations and manipulation of recuperation; that is to say, a process by which contemporary capitalism – via the process of commodification – neutralizes that which emerges outside of its domain.24 To avoid ethical dilemmas, independent non-for-profit sponsors were selected based on shared social interests, and institutional resources were effectively exploited for political ends – all with the intention of aligning “the language of curatorial discourse” with “the language of the liberal public sphere”25. Additionally, the British writer Steve Lyons explained that the curators engaged in “a marathon game of liar’s poker”26, employing trickster tactics of deception, disguise, and subversion as a means of safeguarding art’s effectiveness. An example of this is the GLITUR (Grand Legion of Incendiary and Tenacious Unicorn Revolutionaries) banner, an unapologetic object, which, through tactical misinformation, was installed without the knowledge of the V&A’s administration.

"Anything is possible" banner by the Grand Legion of Incendiary and Tenacious Unicorn Revolutionaries (GLITUR)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This type of disruptive intervention worked progressively against existing power structures in the V&A, emphasizing resistance to the institutional mechanism of recuperation. By making a concerted effort towards an ethos of curatorial practice, Flood and Grindon fostered a sense of “critical consciousness” among the V&A’s museum professionals; a notion “central to critical community practice”.27 This became apparent when V&A-employed members of the PCS Union organized an unannounced intervention on the issue of pay raise as part of the accompanying exhibition program Friday Late.

Against this backdrop, it can be said that Disobedient Objects was not only successful in shifting the museum towards a “supporter of activist struggle”, but also effective in creating a “base camp for political organizing”.28 Broadly translated, what was learned above can be applied to curating in response to Brexit in three main ways: Firstly, curators ideally bring to their practice a sense of counter-politics through which institutional divisions can be subversively seized as opportunities to create a public sphere; secondly, aligning ‘why’ with ‘what’ and ‘how’ will allow museums to bring about progressive change; and thirdly, mission-driven activism can prove beneficial for growing a civic-minded museum professional.

Collecting Europe: A Relational Approach to Stealth Activism

Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. – Bertold Brecht

The exhibition Collecting Europe (2017), a collective project in which 12 UK and EU artists reflected on “what Europe might look like in 2.000 years”29, can likewise inform the curatorial engagement with Brexit, albeit in a different way. Rather than conceiving of an oppositional stance, Collecting Europe sought to make way for a co-authored narrative in order to leave space for inter-subjectivity and interpretation.30 By creating a living question rather than a deadened answer, the exhibition conceived itself as an “open work of art”, which, according to Umberto Eco, “permits, through the ambiguity of its messages, an infinite number of interpretations”31 and a polyphonic exchange of disparate voices. In other words, the exhibition’s pledge to flexibility and its commitment to open possibility helped defy ideological dogmatism, breaking down clear-cut dichotomies by arguing for their relativity. As such the result of Collecting Europe was a demonstration of European identity as a fluid notion, highlighting what the cultural theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty has called “common differences”32. This creation of parallelism between different people and countries is exemplified by works such as Thibaut de Ruyter’s A Song for Europe, a curated playlist of cross-border musical culture that acknowledged the richness of shared history and heritage in the EU. By embracing common markers of identity, Ruyter and other featured artists promoted an inclusive vision of Europe, thereby opening up possibilities for solidarity.33 This emancipatory potential is inherent to a relational approach not only because it is suggestive rather than authoritative, but also since it emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between unity and diversity. With this in mind it can be said that, from a curatorial perspective, a relational approach can prove beneficial for dealing with Brexit because it seeks to show the inextricable link between individual narratives by communicating an experience through a chorus of many voices.

A Song for Europe. An Exhibition in Sixteen Tracks curated by Thibaut de Ruyter, designed by Büro Otto Sauhaus in Berlin
Courtesy: © Thibaut de Ruyter

Conclusion

In the wake of Brexit, it has become clear that British society has become increasingly polarized and people are struggling to come to terms with divisions over national identity. The need for reconciliation is the ultimate challenge, but also the ultimate responsibility because only through a constructive and forward-looking discussion on Brexit can the UK move away from the them versus us narrative. Due to their social capital, museums are well-equipped to contribute to the wider public debate about what common values and citizenship in Britain should mean. So far, however, the less tangible aspects of Brexit have been overshadowed by practical fears over economic and bureaucratic implications. In order to strengthen their roles as civic institutions, museums must look beyond these areas of consideration and use their ability to approach Brexit from a critical position of strength, enabling opportunities for British people to empathize with experiences they may not have the opportunity to otherwise. Taking seriously the museum’s relatively new-found remit to actively serve the public, this paper has striven to find meaningful ways for museums to engage with Brexit. Efforts concentrated on first trying to examine then attempting to evaluate two case studies – Disobedient Objects and Collecting Europe – that illustrate a set of appropriate practical skills for political, socially-focused curatorial practice. Through an unearthing of repressed narratives, Disobedient Objects exemplified how counter-hegemonic strategies can be employed for achieving a mission-driven approach to museum activism. The exhibition’s commitment to organizational change not only stimulated a deeper understanding of museum ethics but also created an environment where active agency became more pronounced amongst museum workers. As such, Disobedient Objects was successful in providing encouragement of self-reflective institutional practice and social initiative taking. Collecting Europe demonstrated that, by adopting a relational and collective approach, museums can create more nuanced experiences through an interplay of many different voices. The exhibition’s abandonment of a strict narrative supported non-affirmative-action curating because it encouraged a progressive discourse around intersectionality, rather than aiming at the creation of a singular representation. By constructing linkages between intercultural constellations, Collecting Europe presented itself as a reflective opportunity for promoting openness, tolerance, and inclusion. While these case studies can be used as a lens through which to respond to Brexit, it is important to remember that breaking out of the museum’s heteronormative framework is not a formula, but an attitude. Despite all institutional risks, limits, and challenges, museums are in a great position to open a discussion on what kind of Britain people want. Understanding in what ways museums can help bridge “Divided Britain” seems imperative if they are to remain relevant and effective in the long run.


  1. Sara B. Hobolt, The Brexit Vote: A Divided Nation, A Divided Continent, 2016, p. 4 https://www.researchgate.net/publcation/308206236_The_Brexit_vote_a_divided_nation_a_divided_continent [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  2. Other nationalist-populist movements include the 2015 election of Poland’s right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) Party; the US presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016; the Italian referendum to reject constitutional reform in 2016 as well as the coalition between Italy’s far-right League party and the populist Five Star Movement; the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front party in the run-up to the country’s presidential election of 2017; the political success of the far-right Alternative For Germany (AfD) party; the government of Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán; and the rise of Geert Wilder’s right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands.
    Hugh Gusterson, From Brexit To Trump: Anthropology And The Rise Of Nationalist Populism(American Ethnologist, 2017), p. 2 https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/amet.12469 [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  3. Steven Erlanger, "No One Knows What Britain Is Anymore", Nytimes.Com, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/04/sunday-review/britain-identity-crisis.html [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  4. Areas of the creative sector include film, TV, radio, photography, music, advertising, museums, galleries, and digital institutions – just to name a few.
    Wendy Earle, "Those In The Arts And Creative Industries Should Have Nothing To Fear From Brexit Brexitcentral", Brexitcentral, 2017 https://brexitcentral.com/arts-creative-industries-nothing-fear-brexit/ [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  5. Mia Jankowicz, "Britain's Thriving Art Scene Strangled By Brexit Chaos", Politics.Co.Uk, 2017 https://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2017/03/20/britain-s-thriving-art-scene-strangled-by-brexit-chaos [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  6. The main worry is that these issues will adversely affect both the cultural and the symbolic economy of the UK, thereby negatively impacting on the country’s soft power and global reach.
    Dr. Loes Veldpaus and Prof. John Pendlebury, Brexit & Heritage (Newcastle University, 2017), p. 9-10 https://eprint.ncl.ac.uk/file_store/production/239847/36F25C4A-7098-49A8-BC0B-5BC900655031.pdf [Accessed 25 April 2019]. 

  7. Insa Koch, "Brexit Beyond Culture Wars", American Ethnologist, 44.2 (2017), 225-230 http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/69531/7/Koch_Brexit_beyond_culture_wars_2017.pdf [Accessed 25 April 2019]. 

  8. Anon.,"The Guardian View On Culture Funding: Time To Be More Radical | Editorial", The Guardian, 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/02/the-guardian-view-on-culture-funding-time-to-be-more-radical [Accessed 25 April 2019]. 

  9. Christy Romer, "Loss Of EU Arts Funding Would Hit Pro-Brexit Regions Hardest", Artsprofessional, 2018 https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/loss-eu-arts-funding-would-hit-pro-brexit-regions-hardest [Accessed 25 April 2019]. 

  10. A timely example is the Northampton Museum: Ineligible for funding by the Arts Council England, it was forced to sell the jewel of its collection – an ancient Egyptian statue – during a Christie’s auction in 2016 in order to cover expenses for incurred costs.
    Anon., Could Brexit Transform The European Art Market? (Art Media Agency, 2016), p. 7 http://www.hunters-solicitors.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/253-en.pdf [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  11. Dr. Loes Veldpaus and Prof. John Pendlebury, Brexit & Heritage (Newcastle University, 2017), p. 15 https://eprint.ncl.ac.uk/file_store/production/239847/36F25C4A-7098-49A8-BC0B-5BC900655031.pdf [Accessed 25 April 2019]. 

  12. Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell, Museum Activism (London: Routledge, 2019), p. 8. 

  13. Ibid, p.1. 

  14. Ibid, p.18. 

  15. Stephen E. Weil, Making Museums Matter (Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2006), p. 63. 

  16. As one of the UK’s national museums, the V&A is classified as a public body, operating at arm’s length from its main sponsor: The Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Both its status and semi-autonomous character make the V&A an interesting example for the study of museum activism.
    Martin Roth, "Museums Have A Vital Ethical Role To Play | Financial Times", Ft.Com, 2016 https://www.ft.com/content/909594d2-8023-11e6-8e50-8ec15fb462f4 [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  17. Steve Lyons, Disobedient Objects: Towards A Museum Insurgency (Journal of Curatorial Studies, 2018), p. 2 https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/jcs/2018/00000007/00000001/art00001 [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  18. The objects of rebellion ranged from every-day items to objects crafted for a specific purpose such as barricades, shields, inflatables, banners, stencils and on so.  

  19. Steve Lyons, Disobedient Objects: Towards A Museum Insurgency (Journal of Curatorial Studies, 2018), p. 8 https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/jcs/2018/00000007/00000001/art00001 [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  20. Ibid, p. 19-20. 

  21. Oliver Marchart, The Curatorial Function – Organizing The Ex/Position, 9th edn (On Curating), p. 46 http://www.on-curating.org/files/oc/dateiverwaltung/old%20Issues/ONCURATING_Issue9.pdf [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  22. Ibid 

  23. Steve Lyons, Disobedient Objects: Towards A Museum Insurgency (Journal of Curatorial Studies, 2018), p. 8 https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/jcs/2018/00000007/00000001/art00001 [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  24. Julian Eagles, "Guy Debord And The Integrated Spectacle", Uta.Edu, 2012 https://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/9_1/eagles9_1.html [Accessed 25 April 2019]. 

  25. Disobedient Objects was sponsored by charities like the London Community Foundation, which focuses on supporting the disadvantaged in London through local grassroots organizations. In addition to drawing connections with ongoing movements, agendas, and campaigns, Flood and Grindon also repurposed the museum’s online platform as an activist resource.
    Steve Lyons, Disobedient Objects: Towards A Museum Insurgency (Journal of Curatorial Studies, 2018), p. 19-24 https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/jcs/2018/00000007/00000001/art00001 [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  26. Ibid, p. 19. 

  27. Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell, Museum Activism (London: Routledge, 2019), p. 81. 

  28. Steve Lyons, Disobedient Objects: Towards A Museum Insurgency (Journal of Curatorial Studies, 2018), p. 28 https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/intellect/jcs/2018/00000007/00000001/art00001 [Accessed 4 April 2019]. 

  29. Anon., "Collecting Europe - Goethe-Institut Vereinigtes Königreich", Goethe.Dehttps://www.goethe.de/ins/gb/en/kul/sup/coe.html [Accessed 7 April 2019]. 

  30. Another example of this approach is the V&A’s Rapid Response Collection (2014): It was established as a new type of collecting activity in which contemporary objects are acquired based on their relevance to the contemporary world. Objects include, for example, the knitted Pussyhat that was worn at the Women’s March in Washington on the 21st of January – 1 day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.  

  31. Friederike Wappler, New Relations In Art & Society: Neue Bezugsfelder In Kunst Und Gesellschaft (Zürich: JRP Editions SA, 2012), p. 32. 

  32. Maura Reilly and Lucy Lippard, Curatorial Activism (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018), p. 31. 

  33. As part of the exhibition, the organizers – the British Council, Goethe-Institut and the V&A Museum – also designed an interactive online quiz with questions surrounding personal identity, geography, culture, and society. For example: Are you Bauhaus or surrealism?, or Is your personality because of your origins or your choices?
    Anon., "Collecting Europe Student Worksheet" (London: The British Council), p. 5 https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/Collecting_Europe_student_worksheet.pdf [Accessed 8 May 2019].