A year since the Brexit vote, Article 50 triggered and with a General Election looming, justified by the aspiration of giving a mandate for Theresa May and her government to press for a ‘hard Brexit’, where is the voice of the archaeology and heritage community on Brexit?

Whilst in London, I popped into the Museum of London and saw this, sadly apposite display – heritage overtaken by events?

Previously I’ve posted on Brexit and archaeology here – I outlined some generic responses by national societies and organisations. While I’m aware there was a session at the CIfA annual conference here, to my knowledge the only open UK event thus far to directly address Brexit’s archaeological and heritage interactions was Friday’s (5 May 2017) workshop at UCL, organised by Dr Andrew Gardner and Professor Rodney Harrison: Brexit, Archaeology and Heritage: Reflections and Agendas.

Session 1 explored practical impacts of Brexit from commercial and academic (particularly UCL) perspectives. What came across to me from the session was the futility of any academic lobby, but also the need for academics and researchers to staunchly defend the significance of their work to global, national, regional and local communities in daunting circumstances. It was made clear that the current government are only interested in academics who can claim to identify something positive in Brexit: sadly it seems that the vast networks of UK academics find little or nothing to recommend Brexit, and most of this advice and expertise is thus being ignored.

Session 2 considered the uses of the past in discourses on Brexit and wider popular culture debates on ancestry and Britishness/Englishness. Note: Dr Matthew Pope gave a paper in the place of Corinna Riva. A particular theme coming out of these papers was a critique of claims to the ‘native’ past and claiming the past as ‘ours’ (whoever ‘we’ might be). Still, I would flag up the need to retain robust critiques of migrationist stances as well as claims to indigeneity too. As Gardner and others noted: extremist political and popular positions are often very fluid in their simultaneous claims of particular groups as being ‘special’ for being descending from ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’ to exclude and diminish the rights and identities of others.

Session 3 tackled the ‘post-truth’ dimensions of our modern politics and the agressive dismissal of ‘experts’. There was a perspective from the ‘Remain’ campign of reactions to the arguments during the Referendum campaing. I was struck by how little the lobbying or perspectives engaged with historical perspectives about the UK’s relationship with the EU. Meanwhile, two presentations exploring the challenge of claiming ‘expert’ knowledge in an era when ‘experts’ are dismissed and denigrated. I gained from this a real tension and different views expressed between ‘scientific’ and heritage specialists regarding how we claim expert status, engage the public and produce/claim knowledge.

Queenshithe mosaic – invasion and immigration woven into the story of London

With a broad remit and wide-ranging papers, an event taking place in a central location, free and open to all, and live-streamed too, this was an important and welcome event, especially in the context of the aforementioned dearth of debate by others.

I did some live-tweeting during sessions 1 and 2 to capture some of the debates, although the complex ideas and issues of the third session on ‘post-truth’ politics didn’t lend itself so readily to live-tweeting.

Reflections

The aim of the organisers is for this to be an inaugural event, with future events addressing more specific themes. So far, I have 5 points to make:

  • I was shocked by the general absence of medieval archaeologists among the audience and speakers. Perhaps the accidental result of the networks of the organisers, I still feel that medieval archaeologists have significant voices on the use of the past in the present, and the relationships between Britain and its European neighbours;
  • The audience was mixed in terms of age and gender, but I suspect a large fraction of individuals were originally from outside the UK. Does this simply reflect the demographic of UCL staff and students, or might it suggest that UK-born staff and students see Brexit as less of a problem than those who have already experienced the challenges of working in the UK without British citizenship and the anti-immigration diatribes of the media of late?
  • I was surprised how little ‘faith’ and ’emotion’ – driving forces in the Brexit vote – were tackled head-on at the event across the three sessions, although Rodney Harrison’s talk came closest by far in that regard;
  • The coming of the Saxons by the Thames at Queenshithe

    Only in passing was there mention of the huge potential of the ‘contemporary archaeology of Brexit’ – investigating its effects on our material cultures, buildings and landscapes.

  • After the day, I explored the next morning various aspects of London, including the Museum of London, where I encountered displays that seem to foreshadow recent events in their narratives of British separatism in the Roman world. I also explored the Thames walk and Queenshithe where I encountered a mosaic close to the site of excavations at Bull Wharf which I recently edited for publication in the Archaeological Journal. For many reasons, these encounters promoted me to think about how Brexit has emerged and how much heritage specialists and archaeologists are culpable in the narratives espoused by politicians and others, informing their decisions on future relations with Europe. Does the Queenshithe mosaic and the portrayal of Roman London in MoL materialise popular feelings and thinking about place and identity today? How much has this narrative informed the thinking of those who voted for and against Brexit? How much will the past become central to the story of Brexit as it unfolds?

I think this was an important event for a (sadly) dominant topic, one that will effect all sectors of the archaeology and heritage research and sectors over coming years. I look forward to future events to expand and explore the many interactions between archaeology, heritage and Brexit.

Mercia and St Paul’s – aspects of the past in London’s present
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