Brick Lane Mosque photographed from the street
Brick Lane Mosque, London
Brick Lane Mosque, London

The Importance of Bringing Greater Diversity to Historic England

The history of England is the story of different cultural and ethnic groups arriving and interacting with the indigenous population and one another, adding to the diversity and richness of our collective national identity.

From the appearance of the Beaker phenomenon in the archaeological record in the third millennium BC to successive waves of people fleeing persecution in Continental Europe in the 20th century, our cultural identity has absorbed different influences.

Sometimes distinctive new cultural 'hybrids' emerge, for example Romano-British deities. The very words 'Anglo Saxon', which are now synonymous with indigenous culture and identity, reflect waves of invasion and more peaceful migration. This is noteworthy in the year of the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest.

It would be naive to ignore the feelings of insecurity which mass migration can give rise to. But the historical record, and the stories locked up in our historic places, helps to shine an objective and dispassionate light on these issues. This is the power of our subject-matter.

As an organisation, we’re responsible for protecting the nation’s most valued buildings and places. To achieve this, we know that raising the profile of our extraordinary, diverse history, and the amazing stories it embodies, is one of the most powerful tools we can deploy.

It engages people in a way that complements and strengthens our role as providers of statutory advice within the system. It is simply more visceral, and appeals to a much wider audience than our traditional stakeholders. And critically it can help to build a wider sense of belonging and community.

A great example is the Bangladeshi community I visited recently in Handsworth. They have adopted and championed the qualities of their district, embracing it as part of their cultural identity.

To fulfil our mission we need to build stronger links between Historic England and diverse communities. The most direct way is to have a more representative workforce.

That is a challenge for an organisation with high levels of staff retention which draws on academic disciplines that do not themselves recruit from a diverse student body.  An organisation which also prides itself on developing and retaining people with national expertise, with consequently low rates of staff turnover. But there are many ways of broadening our representativeness, as well as permanent employment.

Work placements, apprenticeships, secondments, shadowing and encouraging staff to share experiences and seek out new contacts in our regional and local catchment areas, using social media, are all powerful tools.

We have just begun to travel this road. I was hugely impressed by the insights from three young people who recently took up work placements for people from Black and Minority Ethnic groups at Historic England. Programmes like this give us a new perspective on how we can engage more directly with the world outside, which will also improve our collective intelligence.

So I am writing this simply to explain my belief in how important this fresh perspective is to Historic England and our future influence on national life. And to start a discussion about diversity and encourage new ideas about how we can achieve a more diverse perspective in all we do.

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The author

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive, Historic England

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