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British heritage: Redefining what is culturally valuable

The UK's black and ethnic minority communities have long been marginalised in the heritage sector. A Northumbria University-led project is working to change attitudes about cultural heritage by building equality and capacity among black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in the North East of England. Importantly, the research has stimulated cross-culture collaboration and mobilised new heritage and policy-influencing activities.

Heritage making in the UK has traditionally been blinkered, with black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups often misunderstood and under-represented, particularly in positions of power within culture and heritage institutions. Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has shown there is a real urgency to re-define British heritage and reflect the reality of the 21st century. It is within this context that researchers at Northumbria University conducted a project to put the voices, activities and self-representations of BAME communities centre stage to tackle inequalities in what is considered culturally ‘valuable’.

The (Multi)Cultural Heritage research project, led by Dr Susan Ashley, Associate Professor in the Department of Arts, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), studied how and why BAME-led organisations express cultural heritage. For this purpose, heritage was considered beyond buildings and objects and included traditions, characteristics and ways of thinking drawn from the past. The project involved collaboration and co-production in a series of interviews, meetings, workshops and events during 2017-19. It culminated with a policy workshop in Newcastle in April 2019, and a national symposium, Whose Heritage? in May 2019, both jointly organised by Dr Ashley and multicultural sector partners.

The study has had a strong impact on minority led organisations involved in arts, culture or heritage in the North East, as they took on leadership roles within the project. Partners generated meetings, relationships and bidding outside of the project, and oversaw symposium coordination, as well as planning in follow-up minority-led research projects.

The participants considered it their responsibility to help shape project outcomes, shifting a planned exhibition to a symposium, for example, and changing the nature of the symposium from academia towards cultural performance. Their participation in the symposium itself led some to organise heritage activities within their organisations and inspired collective political activism to change how heritage and culture is viewed and practised in the region. The research has prompted those involved to work more collaboratively across cultures, as well as build capacity for heritage making and improve governance structures. 

The impact of the study is wide-ranging, influencing creativity, culture and society; understanding, learning and participation; and practitioners and professional services. Emerging outcomes of the project include a Multicultural Organisational Archives, an open access edited book titled Whose Heritage? with Routledge, and a series of policy workshops challenging how the Equality Act is implemented within official heritage bodies such as Historic England. These initiatives are partner-driven and facilitated by Northumbria. Partners include Vamos, Sangini, Eclipse Theatre, Angelou Centre, Everyday Muslim, the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, and the North East of England African Community Association.

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