Connecting Histories – Voices Past and Present: the Backdrop

Izzy Mohammed

Izzy Mohammed

Following Kate Smith’s post on Connecting History this week, I was asked by the MBS blog to write about the event and the on-going initiatives which I have been involved with as the Library of Birmingham’s Audience Engagement Co-Ordinator.

In a particularly multicultural city – Birmingham – and an increasingly multicultural nation – Britain – how do we:

(a) enable wide and meaningful participation in the production and reproduction of histories and heritages towards an inclusive ‘national culture’ reflecting the realities rather than doing this just for the sake of it ‘being a nice thing to do’?

(b) empower different groups so we expand the scope of involvement in local and national culture – in local and national life?

(c) correct the affects of those regressive forces that seek to engender divisive sentiments, attitudes and ideas?

Birmingham is a multicultural city. But being ‘multicultural’ can be taken to mean a lot of things. Perhaps most crucially, the concept embodies a kind of diversity resulting from migration of deep and global significance.

In my experience as Audience Engagement Co-ordinator at the Library of Birmingham, it often seems that this diversity has yet to be embedded within the cultural fabric of the nation. In other words, the history of British diversity is seldom seen as an integral element within the history of the nation. This has led to an under-representation of the diverse range of histories and heritages that ought to be seen as comprising our world – from the local – to the national – to the global.

Remnants of a Portrait of a Bangladeshi family

Remnants of a Portrait of a Bangladeshi family

A lack of representation has not only been disempowering for respective groups, it has also served to constrain cross-cultural contact and knowledge. Set against a backdrop of negative sentiments frequently present in contemporary discussion of topics like immigration, Islam and Muslims, the working and so-called, “under’-classes”, Ebola-type scare stories, anxieties about Europe, as well as the continuing economic crisis from which we yet to emerge – it is easy to see how discord and discontent is apparent, if not engineered. Undoing the damage by trying to increase knowledge and connectivity and through engendering a sense of the actual and of proportion is not easy.

Connecting Histories – Voices Past and Present (Saturday 15th November)[1] was a part of an ongoing process designed to make some sort of contribution in this regard. That is:

(a) to raise the profile of diverse community histories and heritages and accord these with some degree of value.

(b) to enable a practical understanding of how groups can participate in the field of community history and heritage (with this event drawing attention to oral history – the field of recording/documenting history by recording the stories of ordinary people and funding opportunities available through the Heritage Lottery).

(c) to provide opportunity for cross-community awareness, understanding and participation (typically referred to as social cohesion).

Saturday’s event drew together projects and groups from various parts of the city; the Three Estates and Kings Norton; Bordesley Green; Saltley – and others with a broader city or region-wide remit; covering topics such as Mirpuri History and heritage; the lives of working class people; the Polish community; Chinese community; and Birchfield Harriers (the city’s leading and oldest athletics club).[2]

The most significant outcome of the event was to bring together this diverse group of people to enable this kind of learning and sharing; that the event at least allowed for the possibility of a sense of a common humanity and familiarity – opportunities for which have often been problematically lacking.

While Birmingham is considerably more comfortable with its multicultural nature than many other similarly diverse urban contexts, the uncritical – if not biased – racialisation of particular news stories and a tendency to focus attention on particular issues around particular groups has fuelled popular discourses around the failures of multiculturalism, often adding to the widespread unease and uncertainty caused by an economic crisis from which the world is yet to emerge.

This has led to fertile ground for the germination in certain quarters of socially unconstructive ideas and attitudes. These are the contexts in which events and programmes such as Connecting Histories – Voices Past and Present are situated.

The next event is entitled Connecting Histories – Origins is scheduled for Saturday 28th March, 2015, where the emphasis will be migration and settlement. It will be another interesting session.

[1] The event is named after the Connecting Histories project (partnership project between, particularly, the Library of Birmingham, or the Central Library as it was, and the University of Birmingham).

[2] The LBGT history group, too, were programmed to present but an overrun the programme meant the programme for the day had to be concluded without this particular presentation. It is worthwhile mentioning that the LGBT community had presented at previous events and will do so at future events, as well.

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