From Diverse Locales to Diversity Within

Brown Bag 3rd November 2010

“Celebrating Diversity in Museums”
Dr. Atul K. Shah

As part of his Epic Masala Tour of Great Britain, Dr Shah of Diverse Ethics was kind enough to come and talk to us about his work, and his campaign. Diverse Ethics encourages and supports diversity of all kinds in workplaces of all kinds. But Dr. Shah has a particular interest in the cultural sector.

Though historically his work has not been based specifically around museums, he has gradually become involved with various cultural organizations such as the V&A and the MLA as a consultant and Board Member. As such, he examines, and tries to combat, the reasons behind the disparity between the diverse, global collections of the UK’s museums and the demographics of their staff. By redressing this balance, he believes that interpretations of objects and museums can be augmented and enhanced. This enrichment, and how it might be achieved, is at the core of Dr. Shah’s presentation.

Humans are subjective creatures, with emotional, imaginative and religious lives, which workplaces frequently subdue. For the workplace is a place of institutionalised, subconscious prejudice – not just for people from ethnic minorities, but for everyone. Most workers suffer some kind of ‘identity stress,’ because when at work they are not able to express their full character, and must place a mask upon themselves in a number of ways. Removing this mask seems to be Dr. Shah’s aim. Personally, I suspect that there are reasons for the mask, and that the unfettered release of the people behind might not make for the most productive workplace. I do, however, agree that there should be places in which that diversity is expressed, and certainly the creative sector is one of those most open to such expression. But how best to go about this? How can cultures and interpretations be appropriately encouraged to manifest themselves, and how can we learn from this expression to enrich the lives that we lead day to day?

Recent MLA reports, such as New Directions in Social Policy: Cultural Diversity for museums, libraries and archives suggest that there are many ways in which this might be done. Encouraging a more diverse workforce is certainly one strategy, but the route to doing so is not simple, for there are many reasons which lie behind a lack of diversity in museum staffing. This might be a lack of desire or interest, or perhaps cultural value sets in which the museum, a historically Western institution, plays little established role. However, Dr. Shah suggests another reason, one which it is perhaps more possible to change. Communities often feel separated and distanced from the objects which museums present, partly down to the standard mode of presentation and interpretation which museums employ. As products of the Enlightenment, he argues that they have tended to approach the interpretation of objects and concepts from a very objective stance, which misses out much of the other truths which those objects can and do express. Perhaps by encouraging more collaborative approaches, and community engagement programmes, we might fill such gaps.

Seeking to encourage collaboration between cultural institutions and living cultures, Dr. Shah has brought to the sector his embodied experience as a person of faith. As a Jain, he has spent his life using, loving, and physically engaging with beautiful objects which might, in the museum, be aestheticized and thus removed from life. He wants to return this physical connection to the museum and its artefacts, but he also wants to bring back those less tangible aspects of faith and emotion. In attempts to achieve this, he regularly runs guided walks of places of faith, such as the Jain Temple in London, to which he has taken members of the MLA board, and indeed Viv said that even as a non-Jain, visiting the Temple in Leicester with Dr. Shah has deeply enriched her experience of a space which she already loved for its artistry.

There are, of course, things which cannot always be controlled, nor should they be. Engagements with objects in cultural institutions, though always mediated are, in my opinion, also always subjective and interpretive. Whilst the museum can encourage a particular ‘way of seeing,’ there are aspects of the lives and minds which are looking and feeling which it cannot control. Nor should it attempt to – in Dr. Shah’s opinion, it is worse to steal an interpretation of an object than it is to steal the object itself, for then you are invading not only the physical, but also the personal, private mental world, and that is a true moral crime. Whilst I value deeply what Dr. Shah says, and consider it vital that we engage with the cultural and faith based aspects of works in museums, I do not think that the aesthetic or scientific interpretation of an object should be given any less credence for precisely this reason. For any display, any objectification, any use, is a mediation, a particular subjective angle on an idea or product, and this should in no way be forgotten. Faiths, as Dr. Shah suggests, are truths of a kind, and so, in my view, are the existing interpretations which we have. Interpretations should recognise the value of each other, and not become blinkered by their own worth.

For many things can potentially benefit from a more open approach to interpretation. Dr. Shah holds the opinion that this approach can help to alleviate some of the most serious social problems of our time – mental illness, moral crises and parenting difficulties to name but a few. By approaching objects and interpretations with what he refers to as a ‘borderless mind,’ we can borrow and share so much from each other which might help our world.

It is so refreshing to hear someone talk about the power of cultural institutions in such positive terms, and it is nice to know and to see that there are activities which encourage this kind of engagement and diversity. The V&A, for instance, have been running programmes with Jain communities for a long time now, and there are more and more such programmes springing up across the country, with various degrees of success. The impetus should, however, come from both sides, and we need to encourage both museums and communities to operate with borderless minds, to learn about the knowledge and joy with which each might furnish the other. Fear of engagement with difference is partly, I think, down to a fear of losing yourself and your identity, but Dr. Shah thinks that there is no need to be so afraid. We have, as individuals, communities, cultures and groups of all kinds, so much to gain from each other, and the truly borderless mind opens itself up to this whilst retaining its own character. Idealistically desirable this certainly is, but practically, it’s a difficult balance to draw. The possibilities and potential, however, are too rich to ignore.

Thank you Dr. Shah, and enjoy the rest of your time in Leicester. On that front, it’s Diwali Day today – the biggest celebration of this kind in Europe. Enjoy, if you’re in the vicinity. And don’t forget Bonfire Night either!

Discussion or comment, anyone?


Stephanie said…
I thought Dr. Shah was very interesting, especially his comments on the difficulty of expressing culture as alive and experienced through religious objects in the museal space. He seemed to suggest that if not an overt prejudice, there is at least a post-Enlightenment hesitancy, maybe even an embarassment, on the part of curators in dealing with the issue of living faith. Engaging, and definitely a talk which raised more questions than answers.
J said…
Speaking as a former religious studies student, the hesitancy and embarassment are rife in the academy, as well. The pressure to categorise religious activity into "myth" and "ritual" and to ignore the importance of faith-based motivation was the reason I left the discipline.
Stephanie said…
That's such a shame. I remember there being a very one-sided approach to RE at school, but you'd hope that there would be more openness and sensitivity in high academia.

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