By Angela Creese, TLANG Principal Investigator
On Thursday 5th November 2015 I attended the Museums Association annual conference held at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham. I was on a panel called ‘Understanding Diversity’ with two of our TLANG project partners, Izzy Mohammed, formerly Audience Engagement Coordinator, Library of Birmingham and Toby Watley, Director of Collections, Birmingham Museums Trust. The session was chaired by Simon Taylor, formerly Head of Learning, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. Our session aimed to ‘understand diversity’ and we responded with three different perspectives.
Izzy talked about audience engagement and the importance of including the stories of under-represented groups in library and museum exhibitions. He argued we must work harder to represent minority groups in the exhibitions we curate and organise. Izzy pointed out it was unsurprising if people from diverse communities do not engage with exhibitions if collections do little to include their voices and histories. He provided an example of how this could be achieved through the story of Birmingham GP Feroze Khan and his family’s contribution to fighting for the British army in the First World War. Drawing on family archival material such as awards, honours, certificates, and photographs, Izzy showed how histories are connected across communities, countries, and generations and the importance of telling such stories in libraries and museums.
Toby Watley gave a presentation on how Birmingham Museums have adopted effective strategies to engage and represent multi-faith groups across the city. He focused on how such exhibitions can diversify audiences and the importance of such an objective in superdiverse cities like Birmingham. Toby gave an the example of the exhibition ’Sound and Silence’ and showed how the Museum provided a safe and neutral public space for Birmingham’s different faith communities to share their experiences around prayer and meditation with both religious and non-religious visitors.
In my presentation, I talked about the TLANG project and made the argument that acknowledging difference can have a unifying effect in cities like Birmingham. I used data from the Birmingham meat and fish market collected by TLANG researchers Adrian Blackledge and Rachel Hu. We listened to three butchers selling pig’s tail to a family of three. We saw how mime, gesture, accent, and different languages all helped to create a convivial interaction which went beyond a purely commercial exchange. I argued that in public meeting places like the market, museums, and libraries these everyday fleeting service encounters allow us to notice and respond to difference positively. A video has been made of Birmingham Market as part of the TLANG project, ‘Voices of the Bullring Markets’ and can be viewed here:
Hong Keen butchers, Birmingham meat and fish market
What united the three papers was the importance we gave to collaborative partnerships. They allow us to better understand diversity and engage and work with different groups across the city, disseminate our work more widely, and think more creatively about the stubborn challenges facing our society. We agreed that mutually benefitting from these partnerships is what sustains and nurtures them.
For their part, the audience reacted positively to our three talks. Comments from the floor spoke about how museums could be seen as similar to markets.
• Museums like markets, put things on display
• Museums are places where we ‘rub shoulders with everyone’.
• Both markets and museums are ‘common places’ – open spaces for inclusion.
Simon Taylor ended the session by making his own observations. These included the importance of acknowledging and celebrating difference, the importance of partnerships across disciplines and sectors, and finally, the importance of dialogue and communication because these are artefacts too –traces of how people connect.
Certainly I benefited hugely from the dialogue I had with Izzy, Simon, Toby and the wider museum community. It’s always a good idea to get outside your comfort zone, listen to new ideas and expose your own to new arguments. I found it energizing and creative but also reassuring and consolidating to feel part of a wider community which views diversity as central to narratives about British heritage and identity.