Planning and the Historic Environment 2002

An Agenda for the 21st century – 17 May 2002

Working imaginatively to engage ethnic minorities in

the historic environment

Judy Ling Wong


Black Environment Network

Working with new audiences is surely not about ‘more of the same’ to new

groups of people. Difference generates new opportunities. We can reach out

to ethnic minorities by:

· extending a welcome and enabling them to access the enjoyment and use of the

historic environment

· nurturing their interest in the historic environment

· unlocking their potential contribution to the care of the historic


· involving them in producing resources relevant to their needs and wishes

· uncovering the opportunities for new ways of engaging with the historic


· tapping into indigenous knowledge and skills

· linking social, cultural and environmental aspects of the historic


· working cross-culturally towards a transformed experience of the historic



All of us, professional or otherwise, are in touch with facts about the historic

environment to some extent. But relative to our level of knowledge, and the relevance

of the subject to our lives, we proceed to discard, dismiss, embellish and edit. People,

as culture-creating beings, constantly create a perceived reality heavily modified by

selective caring.


In each period, cultural groups create mythical images and enveloping myths which

drive the manipulation of interpretation of their surroundings in particular directions.

These personal myths powerfully create new realities. Mythical images created as

such express the aspirations and the social and the cultural values of our time. Many

of them are rooted in emotive psychological needs that necessarily deny aspects of the

full picture as it can be known to ourselves. With the world open to mass

communications and complex cultural-historical allegiances, coupled with a multicultural

local scenario, cultural groups within society and within the world now create

competing mythologies, vying for expression to shape the reality that each of the

culture groups would like to have.


These opening ideas relate to current events, issues and ideas such as September 11,

the challenges of our own national identity and of our situation in Europe and the

world, and of globalisation generally. Black Environment Network is the primary

organisation working for ethnic environmental pacification. Our mission statement

says that we work for participation in both the built and the natural environment.

When we started in the nature conservation sector 15 years ago, nature reserves were

about building fences so that people could not get into them. Now, things have really

changed: nature conservation is a huge movement and we have helped the sector to

get people really to engage.


Recently, for example, the British Conservation Trust for Volunteers (BCTV) got a

grant of £1.3m from the Community Fund to set up an ‘Environment For All’ project,

aimed at opening up their organisation and working within all the strata of society by

putting into place local project officers directed at reaching out to both ethic

communities and other disadvantaged user groups. We are supporting that project by

undertaking a review and bench-marking exercise for them, and that is how our

organisation works. Instead of a pressure group coming forward, hitting you on the

head and saying you are not doing this so go out and do it, we actually have a very

different philosophy that says - ethnic communities need support and nurturing to

come into a new area of endeavour but at the same time we also realise that engaging

them is a new area of endeavour for the organisations. So we do a lot of work helping

organisations of goodwill to move forward. We work both conceptually on the policy

side and on the practical side, assisting people in many areas so they can actually

make the changes that we feel are necessary in order to make things happen and make

people fully participate. Some of our publications on the table including the latest one,

’Heritage and Greenspaces’, bring together recent papers around certain themes.

We work conceptually and try to strike at the heart of the matter, going beyond

superficial yes-no things about whether you do or do not reach out to people. We

really think through what it is that makes things work when we engage with people.

Engagement with people is an area of activity that is quite different from other parts

of the work of an organisation built around a concentration on mechanistic expertise

about knowing a subject and doing it well. The side that deals with people is what is

needed when you work for change in relation to social inclusion.


Change happens only when three things come together, ‘thinking’ - ‘knowing what it

is about’, ‘feeling for the subject’ - which underpin the essential commitment and

motivation to reach out and engage with the target group, leading finally the third

component ‘action’. Commitment and action do not come together out of thin air;

there needs to be within the organisation a context of raising strategic awareness that

allows people to think about these feelings. Allowing people to decide for themselves

through thinking and feeling that they want to do something is how the organisation

finally becomes committed.


Strategic action is achieved by means of a combination of policy and projects. It is not

just about despatching project officers to reach out to the grass roots of a community

or organisation; it is also about awareness and commitment at the top. Strategically

we need to say to ourselves that, within three years, in certain strata of the

organisation, we will have identified the key people for whom the necessary

awareness raising exercise has taken place. That is the basis and foundation for

driving relevant policy through management to implementation throughout the actual

culture of the organisation, with the result that socially and culturally appropriate

programmes of activities appear on the ground. That is the most powerful way of

doing it.


When we reach out to certain groups, how do people actually feel about what they

are, and are not, able to do ? What are the perceived barriers, and what is the basis for

them ? One of the most important things to understand is that what we wish to do and

what we can achieve depends upon how we see ourselves, and what we would like to

become. But all this is against the enormous pressure of how others see us. The

individualistic nature of the contemporary world is one of the most powerful factors

in the way people form themselves; people construct themselves as much as society

tries to construct them. But our possibilities for action are limited by how we as

individuals see the world, so we need to understand and realise that organisations are

power-houses of knowledge and resources which direct how people look at the world,

how they appreciate different roles, shape action and decide whether or not to engage

with others. At present this kind of understanding can be a powerful force for us, in

the sort of world we have now with all its problems.


What is the role of heritage ? You talked a little about theme parks this morning, that

many people are going in the entertainment direction, a current trend in society at the

moment. Instead of having history we have heritage, which is a more rosily packaged

version of how we would like to see our past. There is a real need for our

contribution to be focused upon the revelation of history based upon meaning. We

can use the analogy of people leaving a theatre weeping their eyes out after seeing a

tragedy, saying they enjoyed it. The difference between going for historical meaning

and going for theme-park heritage is that you do not simply entertain; rather you give

the audience enjoyment because the meaning of what they experience draws them out

and informs their life. That is where the power of the historic environment lies, in

relation to playing a significant role in the context of our complex troubled

contemporary world.


Before I talk about multi-culturalism I must ask you to think about yourself as an

ethnic group - even though you might be the majority ethnic group; whenever I say

‘ethnic group’ don¹t think about ‘them’, think about ‘us’. We are all ethnic groups,

and when we put ourselves in that circumstance we also think differently about

ourselves. Thinking about multi-culturalism is extremely important at the moment

because of the things that are happening in the world; people are using words in all

kinds of different ways that drives them to different kinds of behaviour. We need to

look at certain words like multi-culturalism in a constructive way in order to help

people think through some of the current challenges. This ought to be easy for

archaeologists because they deal with things that go way back, and know already that

all cultures are multi-cultural. Others have to be convinced or reminded, often to their

surprise, that once there was no such people called the English. Archaeologists talk

about the importance and power of knowledge, and have the power to talk about

multi-culturalism in a way that some other groups do not. This needs to come out

more, and be better known as a social force helping people rethink what they mean by

multi-culturalism, that it has always been there as a continual historical fact. We may

define a contemporary culture as being unique – marvellously complex, extremely

interesting in how they are positively and creatively incorporate elements of many

cultures. It puts the lie to concepts like cultural swamping because any culture at any

one time is a unique combination of multi-cultural characteristics, all with their own



We also need to look beyond the superficial. People talk about the obvious things that

symbolise heritage and culture, historic icons, palaces, castles, but the discussion

should go much deeper. We should not look at the things of ordinary life as if they

have nothing to do with culture and heritage and only then start thinking about it

when we go to visit a site. For example, every day we call Arabic numbers Arabic

but we never think about them as Arabic; the powerful concept of Ozero¹, without

which there would be no computers, comes from India. These things are not trivial;

they matter because they are not about the selfish owning-type ‘I’m unique’ kind of

culture but rather the generous giving and taking and recognition of contributions

across nations and cultures across time. At the present moment this so important in

the context of discussions raging every day around asylum seekers, constantly

damaging hitherto generally positive relationships between cultural groups in this

country, by pushing over-simplified ideas at people who have not been able to give

the subject real thought, and by dividing people through fear that also destructively

prevents people from engaging with the issues.


There is a real task within the heritage sector to realise its huge capability for

facilitating the engagement of cultural groups all cultural groups including ourselves;

everyone belongs to a cultural group. It is not just about working with small groups by

themselves alone because there are real pieces of important work to be done around

enabling access by many of the disadvantaged groups who simply have not had the

privilege of contact with knowledge of the sites where they can enjoy the wonderful

things that we can show them. That is one side of it. The other side is the concept of

multi-cultural interpretation of the environment, interpretation done in such a way that

everyone realises naturally, without an effort, that we are all part of the world, that

things which are locally unique also give us continuity with the world. Lets take the

example of the oak tree in Britain as a great symbol for our country. An interpretation

board on a nature reserve can so easily have side-by-side pictures or photographs of

other oak trees, an American oak, an oak from Morocco from which we get all the

wine corks, expressing the idea of the ‘family of trees across the world’. The

emphasis is not upon culture or difference, but upon the unifying idea that local

uniqueness has continuity in the world. If we were only slightly promote more

consciousness that everything is like that, we would make an enormous contribution.

We can re-position mainstream awareness by recognising the power of making

concrete the principle of inter-relatedness in very simple ways.


Two simple matters are intrinsic to all successful engagement. The first is the new

enjoyment and improved quality of life for many deprived groups arising from

coming into contact with things that are fun and meaningful, and which recognise

their presence when they go into a site and see the interpretation, so that they can

recognise it and feel that they are a part of it. The second is the importance for the

movement as a whole of having more supporters who are ordinary people. Don¹t just

think of ethnic minority groups; think also of all those other disadvantaged groups,

like people on council estates, who do not yet have the privilege of knowing what you

do. What is needed for any social groups that have not had access to the environment

is to help them to access the enjoyment of the environment. Looking further into the

future, that enjoyment will unlock their presently missing contribution to the care of

the environment. It is simply the following through of basic human processes shared

in common by all. We all come to love what we know and enjoy, and we fight for

what we love. We need mass support for the historic environment. This can be

achieved through developing processes such as promoting access, providing

information and building relationships, encouraging and enabling people to wield

some power with you, switching on their potential to work for the environment.


This is a remedy not for the kind of deprivation related to how much you earn a week

but related to a loss of access to the variety of life. Thinking about how we relate to

each other and to various situations brings us to think about working for change and

the energy we need for it. Much of it is a matter of making connections, being able to

identify with situations through groups. Groups can access wonderful places that

have meaning for them and through these experiences, engage with today¹s problems.

Go to Hadrian¹s Wall, a wall connecting so many peoples; it is all about dominant

cultures and subservient cultures and about keeping people out, and about who comes

in: is that not what concerns us today also ? Such connections bring things to life, and

engage people by bouncing something off the past and helping them think through

something that is in the present. It can bring meaning into people¹s lives in a way that

transforms them and puts them in a situation with new choices to engage with the

protection and the development of the historical environment. Some of these things -

engagement with people, representation and partnership when listed sound so

obvious, but they are the urgent complex things which we need to consider to shape

our contribution so that we can successfully address the contemporary problems in

our society.


Postscript 1

Who owns heritage ? The only thing left of nationhood is the responsibility for

geographical chunks. Beyond that doesn¹t it belong to everybody ? Are the Italians

going to come and get Hadrian’s Wall ? The British have formed a relationship with

the West Bengali Assembly because they want to do something about Clive¹s house in

India. They think it¹s English heritage out there.


Postscript 2

How do you start engagement ? You begin at the easiest starting point, look at all the

things you have anything to do with and try to find something that is quite exciting

and catches the imagination. You promote it to communities and do other things

around it. You can do things that are very simple, like looking at all your properties

and find all the neutral bits and simply invite groups to come and enjoy themselves.

There are two strands here: sometimes you can do meaningful things so that people

can see that you recognise their presence in the work that you do, and that really

captures them to engage with you; sometimes there is merely the simple truth that

many things simply provide a great starting point of enormous enjoyment. Black

Environment Network has done many projects in partnership with organisations

where we help to form projects, go out to facilitate the connection and identify the

easiest route for starting to work within ethic communities. For example we are about

to do something with the Historic Houses Association, identifying six houses and the

communities that might have a link with them, starting from there. Showing ethnic

communities that we wish to involve them in developing the possibilities is a vital

message in action. Getting an organisation that identification of image is a real

break-through within those communities which usually feel excluded. It is a terrific

starting point.