Brick Lane Jamme Masjid carved into a stone wall.
Brick Lane Mosque © Historic England
Brick Lane Mosque © Historic England

Diverse Stories: A New Ethos for the Heritage Sector

A Japanese friend of mine works for Channel Four. Set up to represent ‘alternative voices’, Channel Four has an ethos that filters down from the Senior Management to the lowest paid staff. Asked how her workplace makes her feel, my friend said: ‘I feel fulfilled. I am totally accepted, nobody judges me. I feel fully part of the team and that my work is valued. I don’t mind staying late at work because I feel motivated.’

Clearly a diversity ethos has many benefits to the employee. But reverse the question: how does a happier more productive employee benefit the organisation? It seems that feeling accepted, fitting in, or simply valued for your work, not the colour of your skin, sexual orientation, faith or physical ability is a win-win for any organisation because productivity and inspiration shoot up.

With an ethos focused on promoting the alternative voices of the country (and the world), Channel Four is also addressing what the diverse audiences of the 21st century are wanting to hear. Viewers feel understood, valued, and respected. They are important too. Without the viewer, Channel Four wouldn’t exist. There is a symbiotic relationship between the broadcaster and the viewer.

Turning our attention to the heritage sector, the broadcaster of all matters related to the historic environment, what message are we broadcasting to our viewers? Who are our viewers?

Predictions tell us that by 2050, 20-30% of the population will be from ethnic minorities. While the white population remains more or less stable, ethnic minorities are contributing to the greatest growth. There is no denying the face of England is radically changing.

A cursory glance at the message broadcast by the heritage sector so far, tells us we have reached largely one segment of society. Why? The answer is simple. We have only told one story.

Our story was born out of the need to create a nation state with one unifying identity. In the process of creating that identity there was no room for diversity. To unify we had to absorb, co-opt, or eradicate multiple identities. We had to distinguish between who belongs in the story and who doesn't.

The problem with the story is that it doesn’t reflect reality. England has had a complex history. Conquered and settled by many different tribes, peoples, empires, and nations, England’s heritage is a complex palimpsest of human cultural interventions. Throughout that history we are told who did fit in and who didn’t – and in some cases we don’t even hear about some cultural interventions because it doesn’t quite suit the story. In short, our story has been edited.

Only recently has this begun to change. Historic England has taken bold initiatives to broaden its heritage interest. A new category of ‘under-represented heritages’ has emerged to take account of the diversity and complexity. At the same time, more crowd-funded stories are being encouraged from local people.

These are commendable moves, however, there still remains a distance between those that belong and those that don’t. Take a look, for example, at the phrase ‘under-represented heritages.’ Why is it a sub-category? We are clearly distinguishing between those heritages that are represented and those that are under-represented. They are separate heritages. This is a telling sign that the main story still remains, but now we have a few sub-stories, but they are not as important, or of equal value, as the main story.

So what can we change so our heritage sector is ready for 21st century England?

The most obvious change is the story. We need to broadcast the alternative voices; the diverse and complex stories that together make up our history. We want our viewers to identify with the diverse stories that represent them. There may be multiple stories on the same topic. This should be encouraged.

We should also start thinking about our staff. Are they trained to research the many stories? Do they themselves identify with the many stories? Does the ethos of ‘diverse stories’ filter down through Senior Management and the Commissioners, down to the lowest paid staff?

Historic England’s Diverse Workforce Strategy is an important and welcome step in starting the change. What might this bring in the future? If a new ethos of ‘diverse stories’ was integrated across the whole organisation, the symbiotic relationship between broadcaster and viewer would ensure Historic England’s existence in the 21st century. We need our viewers.

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The author

Dr Noha Nasser, Director, MELA Social Enterprise