The Brexit Museum: How Will We Interpret the Referendum?

Having recently relocated back to London for work, I’ve been caught up in the drama of the U.K.’s referendum on membership in the European Union. Like most Londoners and millennials, I voted to remain in the E.U. and was devastated to wake up last Friday morning to a narrow Brexit majority.

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Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Author’s Photo.

I consoled myself about this unexpected and (for me, at least) depressing result with a weekend jaunt to Dublin. As I soaked up some local military history in the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks, and convict history at Kilmainham Gaol, I began to wonder how Britain’s E.U. referendum result and subsequent effects would be portrayed in the museums of the future. Many historical narratives about past developments appear logical, inevitable, and ultimately positive to modern eyes.

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National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks, Dublin. Author’s Photo.

Will the same be true for future Brexit exhibits? If the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. is interpreted negatively, who and what will be assigned responsibility by historians and curators of the future? What political, economic, and cultural phenomena will be associated with Brexit? In times of crisis, it is often difficult for contemporaries to predict long-term effects or assign greater meaning to their experience, regardless of how obvious those patterns may seem to subsequent generations.

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With this in mind, I would recommend anyone who is dealing with feelings of worry, stress, or sadness about the referendum result to visit a museum. as I explored Dublin’s many exhibitions about World War I, the Easter Rising, and the Irish Civil War, I realized my fears about a post-Brexit future were insignificant compared to these far larger upheavals. Soldiers at the Somme understood they were taking part in a significant event, but they could never have predicted the central role they would maintain in the heroic, tragic narratives of 21st century museums. Those fallen and wounded warriors would have been surprised to find a peaceful, politically-united France and Germany 100 years later. There is some consolation that the passage of time (and the work of historians) will provide meaning and value to the bleakest of circumstances, even if only future generations can benefit.

Museums are not only spaces for education and engagement; they can also provide clarity in uncertain times, put our troubles into perspective, and give us hope. In these anxious days, I look forward to making sense of Brexit with the assistance of future researchers, curators, and artists.

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The Spire of Dublin. Author’s Photo.

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