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Introducing the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Scottish Heritage sector project

Introducing the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Scottish Heritage sector project

In the first of a series of blogs, Dr Nathar Iqbal introduces himself and the AHRC-funded Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) in Scottish Heritage project he is working on.

There have been increasing calls to re-examine Scotland’s roles in slavery and the British Empire. Fuelled in part by the protests that occurred last year over the murder of George Floyd, these continued appeals to highlight issues of systemic racism and legacies of colonialism and slavery have brought new energy to these debates. In reviving these questions about Scotland’s past, historic figures and public spaces have been increasingly scrutinised, highlighting the nation’s complicity in systems of domination and oppression.

Getting to the heart of heritage ethics

A primary concern in these debates are questions at the heart of heritage ethics:

Who gets to tell the stories of Scotland’s past?

How can the heritage sector openly examine the ways Scottish society has benefitted from the exploitation of enslaved people and Empire?

How can museums and heritage sites address historic and contemporary erasures of significant voices and communities?

It’s vital to explore and address how these systems and mechanisms of power continue to shape contemporary Scotland. How can our cultural institutions create more authentic and critical narratives of Scotland’s histories of Empire, slavery, and colonialism? How can we articulate the impact on continuing 21st-century forms of racism?

We want to examine what EDI looks like in the sector. More importantly, we want to understand why initiatives fail and what we can do to overcome those challenges Dr Nathar Iqbal

What is EDISH?

Exploring and responding to these issues is a central aim of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Scottish Heritage (EDISH) Project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The project will create platforms for better understanding the issues and barriers facing the Scottish heritage sector as it grapples with responding working to be more equitable. This will include exploring the structural and institutional barriers in the heritage sector that negatively affect minority ethnic groups.​

We want to examine what EDI looks like in the sector. More importantly, we want to understand why initiatives fail and what we can do to overcome those challenges. We hope that as a result, the sector will have more meaningful and sustainable ways of working going forward.

Bringing in Cross Sector Experience

Personally, I'm a heritage sector outsider. My background is as an academic in the field of human geography. My earlier career highlights included work exploring EDI at Newcastle University; LGBT+ British Muslim experiences of the closet, urban encounters and religion; young Scottish people’s understanding of politics, belonging and nationhood in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish referendum; as well as roles in projects documenting Black and Asian gay men’s experiences of London’s Soho scene and non-traditional student transitions to university. I'm sure that these experiences will provide a useful springboard to delve into the issues concerning EDI in the Scottish heritage sector. 

I've been in post for three months now. I'm starting to get to grips with the challenges faced by the Scottish heritage sector in engaging meaningfully with EDI. This has included challenging that gap between the institutionalised rhetoric of EDI and embedding of the kind of action that brings about positive changes and culture shifts. Issues and barriers that I’ll explore here include:

  • a lack of workforce and volunteering diversity,
  • material legacies of Scotland’s colonial and slavery past, in the form of spaces, objects and statues,
  • tokenistic and expedient efforts to ‘decolonise’ and institutionalise EDI strategies,
  • poor representations, understandings of, and engagement with Scotland’s increasingly diverse populations.

Before we get to those, the next few blog posts will introduce and unpack Critical Race Theory (CRT) for Heritage use, outlining the history and principles of CRT and its value for both the project and the heritage sector.

The project aims to find the EDI challenges specific to the Scottish heritage sector, whilst also developing more opportunities for BAME people and communities to engage with the sector and shape EDI work going forward. Being clear about the successes and failures of the project (as well as its ongoing activities) is crucial to our work and will play an important part in this blog series.

There is much to do, and I am looking forward to sharing it with you. 

Dr Nathar Iqbal, University of Strathclyde: get in touch with me at nathar.iqbal@strath.ac.uk or follow the project on Twitter @EDIinSH

With thanks to Dr Devon McHugh (MGS) for comments.

Published 26 July 2021