Maya Sharma, Diversity Lead, discusses viewing our local engagement work through an international lens.

November 14, 2019

Earlier this month I took part in The Garage, Norwich’s annual New Horizons conference. Titled International Inspiration it examined how international work can positively impact our practice, organisations and communities. I was there to share my experience and thoughts on engaging diverse local communities, but hearing more about the Garage’s international experiences made me think about how this experience could be applied to our local work.

No one dominant culture

I was really interested in the idea that there is an inherent equality in working internationally (with all partners working in each other's countries) as everyone experiences being abroad, working in different languages with different cultural norms – thus no single culture is dominant. Given the cultural sector workforce is dominated by people who fit the cultural majority (middle/upper-class, middle-aged, white), I wondered how it might be for the sector to act as if it were working internationally? To see our sector and our work through the eyes of an outsider?

Perhaps the ultimate in this approach is illustrated by Body Ritual among the Nacirema, a piece by American anthropologist Horace Miner written in 1956. He described the daily rituals of the Nacirema, a tribe who perform elaborate daily rituals including:

“Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.”

The rituals described, which seem strange and slightly bizarre, until you realise that Nacirema is actually American spelt backwards! The text is used to introduce anthropology students to the idea that every culture can appear strange and hard to read from the outside – perhaps it should be widely shared within the cultural sector!

Seeing through outside eyes

My feeling is that, by seeing our everyday work through an outsider’s eyes, we could learn a lot about how the barriers that we may – unknowingly – be putting up. And by taking measures that we would for international audiences we could actually make our work a lot more accessible to those closer to home.

  • Consider how to translate or even better, do away with the language of the cultural sector: Much engagement work focuses on helping the new audiences understand the language of the sector, when perhaps we should be learning to speak in shared language that is simpler, more accessible and doesn’t need translating.
  • Question whether cultural conventions should be disrupted: why can’t we clap between movements at a classical concert? Would it really be a problem if people moved around during performances? Could we be more relaxed in all performances, not purely in our Relaxed Performances? There is a clear challenge to the sector here, to let go of control a little and bring engagement to the heart of programming rather than keeping the most accessible opportunities at the fringes.
  • Be prepared to challenge “indigenous” audiences: This means changing the focus of engagement work – rather than focusing on people with little experience of going to arts and cultural venues, how we can get them to visit and behave differently, we could work with the traditional visitors to get them to understand why some people may want to talk about what they are seeing or visit in large groups and to understand that we engage in different ways.
  • Make time: Some of the conference sessions were translated into BSL, Spanish and Italian. This took time, and time is a key ingredient in successfully working with diverse audiences. Without time translation isn’t possible, nor is getting to know each other and building trust – an element of international work that speakers revised throughout the day. We need to be realistic about how we plan our engagement activities to make this space, and we need to communicate this clearly to our funders. Not easy, but if we collectively stop promising to deliver deep and lasting engagement via short-term projects perhaps we will then be able to deliver slow, thoughtful and sustained activities that really work for participants.

Much of these won’t be new ideas for those working in learning, engagement and participation. Perhaps the question, then, is how can we encourage those in other parts of our organisations to take this view on our work? We’d be interested to hear your ideas about this – please comment below.

There are more details of New Horizons on The Garage’s Blog, including a list and overview of the speakers.

Featured in the November edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter will share updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.