Wednesday, 16 August 2006

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Connecting people, using things I was privileged the other day to have the chance to talk to Izzy Mohammed who's been doing some fascinating community engagement work with the Connecting Histories project. The project uses thoroughly prepared archive material from around Birmingham to 'establish, train and support a network of archive user and volunteer groups - who will help select material for the e-learning packages, participate in cataloguing, presentation, and interpretation of the collections - and advise on archive policies and practices.' If that sounds dull to you, you could be missing something. Part of the emphasis of the project, says Izzy, is to connect people up in some way. Using archives is at least in part about the discovery and retelling of stories, and skilled archivists are ready to exploit a range of socially and ethnically absorbing collections. Rather than just work with separate community groups or ethnic groupings, Izzy brings diverse groups together, noting that "the key is, you provide a democratic platform." It can be challenging. "Archives can provoke the expression of ethnic tensions and grievances, and that can be a good thing provided it's managed properly... It's all about making sure that around the table we've always got several groups. Several groups listening to each others' stories." Among other things, the project is "supporting people from different communities to get involved in archiving their histories," and contemporary archiving seems to be an important part of the project. Acknowledging the current political and racial awkwardness, much of which is focussed on places like Birmingham, Izzy noted: "On a cultural level there is a struggle to enable people to feel a part of what's going on here. For the next two decades we're going to have to undo that damage."

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