I have worked as teacher and lecturer of English in UK schools and sixth form colleges. I completed my MA and PhD in Education at Goldsmiths, University of London. My research mostly focuses upon young people’s identities and belongings. I now work at Manchester Museum on a project entitled – Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH). The aim is to explore and celebrate the shared cultural heritage between the UK and South Asia. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s (NLHF) Kick the Dust programme, and led by the British Council, OSCH is a partnership project giving young people opportunities to collectively explore shared cultural heritage of the UK and South Asia and change the ways that museums connect with young people. This focus on young South Asians through the work at Manchester Museum is especially pertinent with the development of the first permanent South Asia Gallery in the UK.
As the OSCH Coordinator at Manchester Museum, I am committed to the notion that cultural and heritage institutions should create safe spaces for young people from diverse ethnic and class backgrounds to explore and celebrate the meanings and complexities of their lived experiences of Britishness. Museums are crucial cultural sites where young people can be supported in leading a critical interrogation of the themes that impact their lived experiences – such as migration, belonging, diaspora and racism.
Key questions to be asked are how heritage is defined and to what extent such definitions are understood by or relevant to young people. Young people are highly under-represented in the heritage sector – as employees, as volunteers, and as audiences (Lanchin, 2019). Whilst themes of identity and belonging are important to young people from South Asian backgrounds, unfortunately, many do not see heritage organisations as sites to explore cultural heritage (Imran, Clark, Iconic Consulting, & Bolton, 2018).
When working with young people in museums, creating open and safe spaces for discussing the entanglements of contemporary multicultural identities with the legacies of British colonialism is necessary and long overdue. Normative practices where young people simply drop in to their local museum on a school trip, have a tour, learn a little about the objects and collections, and never return to the museum need to be problematised. Such passive encounters with heritage simply reinforce the belief that the ‘formal heritage’ displayed in museums constitutes the heritage and tells the story.
The treatment of collections as special with artefacts displayed behind glass so you can’t touch them is a privileging of a certain type of classed and racialised heritage. The presentation of these historic objects as fixed and static things with a significant name and alongside authorless text alienates young people who feel museum displays do not resonate with their lived experiences. Such modes of knowledge in museum spaces perpetuate a myth that the formal heritage in museums is more important than the cultural heritage of young people from diverse communities that exists beyond the museums walls. These encounters in mystifying heritage and histories continue to push young people away.
If young ethnically diverse people are only exploring cultural heritage in their home/family/community settings, this begs the urgent question about how inclusive, useful and relevant are museums for the young? Manchester Museum’s core values are: care, imagination and inclusivity, and thus, I strive to ensure that these values are embedded in the work we do with young people. In order to redress the fundamental lack of connection young people feel towards the formal heritage presented in museums, OSCH has sought to make heritage spaces more relevant and useful for diverse young people. I also work hard to dispel the myth I have heard too often that young (South Asians) are just not interested in heritage. If you peruse my OSCH blog and social media, you will see that South Asian young Britons and their peers are very interested in exploring cultural heritage in critical and complex ways.
OSCH Social Media:
Imran, A., Clark, I., Iconic Consulting, & Bolton, K. (2018). Literature Review for Our Shared Cultural Heritage. First Draft of Literature Review. The British Council.
Lanchin, S. (2019, 27/8/2019). What is Kick the Dust? Retrieved from https://www.heritagefund.org.uk/blogs/what-kick-dust