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Top tips for working with the Roma Community: Knowledge Exchange Follow Up Blog

Top tips for working with the Roma Community: Knowledge Exchange Follow Up Blog

Developed as a result of placement work through EDI in Scottish Heritage, this blog overviews some tips developed by placement holders for museums and heritage organisations looking to work more with Roma Communities.

As part of Equality Diversity and Inclusion in Scottish Heritage (EDISH), a partnership project run by the University of Strathclyde, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (SoAoS), and Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, four members of Scotland’s Roma community took part in a placement scheme that offered an opportunity to explore Scotland’s heritage sector. On 4 March, MGS hosted a Knowledge Exchange event that explored these placements. You can watch the recording of this session here.

Jeff, from SoAoS, and placement holders Lubo, Laura, Blanka, and Leon share lunch in the incredibly sparse-looking offices at MGS!!

Here are the top tips that Blanka and Leon shared in the session, for museums and heritage organisations looking to work more with Roma Communities.

Make it personal

Effective work with the Roma community depends on having a good contact from within the community: Roma people are more likely to work with someone they already know and trust.

This is why working with organisations like Ando Glaso is important—they are able to support brokering these relationships, and are trusted by the community to make sure that the programme is fair and supports the Roma community. They can offer amazing expertise to museums looking to work with Roma communities in their area.

Having an individual who is open and dedicated to helping the placements develop their knowledge of the heritage sector is key: the EDISH placements were run by Jeff Sanders from Dig It! and Cara Jones from the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists who worked to build their understanding of Roma culture to help the placements make connections within the heritage world that would interest them.

Jeff and Cara both made sure that personal relationships were central to the visits they made to heritage sites: the responsiveness and personal attention of individual museum staff was key in making sure that the placements felt welcome and were able to connect with the spaces they visited. For example, this was particularly clear at St Cecilia's Hall, where Sarah worked with the placement holders to explore their shared interest in music. The personal touch, the enthusiasm and time taken, and the opportunity to step over the rope and actually play instruments was a great way of engaging.

Sarah Deters, Curator at St Cecilia’s, gives Lubo a spin on the Bible Regal (probably made in Germany, circa 1700-1720: MIMEd 4331), a type of portable organ which uses small metal reeds to make the sound. When not in use, the organ may be folded up: the keyboard fits inside one of the bellows, which then close together to look like a wooden-bound bible (hence the name).

Logistics

Blanka, Laura, Leon, and Lubo all work multiple jobs, as well as having responsibilities to their families and communities. Heritage organisations who want to work with busy young people need to make sure that they are building their programmes with this in mind: two elements of this programme were key in enabling the placement holders to fully engage.

Firstly, the placements were remunerated through a bursary, which helped to make it possible for the individuals to participate. Secondly, the placements were designed around the individual participants, and took into account their schedules. The organisers were able to plan activities for days when the placement holders weren’t working, so they could join in, and were put together with flexibility in mind.

Make the intangible tangible

MGS Collections & Interpretation Manager Jacob O’Sullivan met with the placement holders to talk a little bit about his work, and especially to explore ideas around intangible cultural heritage. Despite initially finding this concept pretty off-putting, the placement holders recognised that much of Roma heritage is intangible, and is based around music, food, and the practice of social traditions that don’t necessarily leave a material record.

Our placement holders remarked that: ‘We think you don’t hear much about Roma people/heritage when its being talked about. We understand it may be harder since Roma people have a lot of intangible heritage rather than tangible.’

ICH can sometimes be challenging to recognise as heritage, because it is so fundamental to how we define and understand ourselves and the communities to which we feel belonging. This conversation highlighted how rich and urgent a role intangible culture plays in the contemporary lives of young Roma people living in Scotland today, and emphasised the potential for museums to be reflective of this through exploring ICH.

Learn something together!

When we share our spacers and collections with new audiences, museums have a great opportunity to learn and explore. The placement holders were struck by an image of the construction of the building that houses the Hunterian Museum at University of Glasgow. ‘It was very interesting experience when we went to Hunterian museum there was a photo that caught our eyes. It is a picture of workers from October 1868 and to us most of them looked Roma. So maybe there is more things similar to our experience that we don’t know about because there is a lack of diversity in the roles.’

Image of builders and architects on site during the construction of the Gilbert Scott Building (now housing the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow), from the collection at the University of Glasgow (Photograph of the University workmen, probably taken in October 1868. University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, GB248 PHU1/105/26. By kind permission of the Faculty of Procurators, Glasgow). During their visit, the placement holders felt that they ‘recognised’ some of the visual signifiers within this image, leading them to wonder if Roma people worked on the construction of the museum.

The elements that the Roma community easily recognised within this photo were not apparent to the museum team: by working together, there is huge potential to undercover new stories about how our cultural heritage has been constructed, literally and metaphorically.

Huge thanks to our placements for sharing your experiences with us, and learning together, and to teams across the museum and heritage sector for working with us on this project. If you want to learn more about Roma communities, we would really recommend these resources, developed by the University of Graz.

You can watch the video that the placements put together below:

Blog written by Devon McHugh, with Lubomir Jaco, Laura Balogova, Blanka Surimova, and Leon Puska

Thanks to Jeff Sanders, Cara Jones, Sarah Deters, and Ruth Fletcher.

Published 20 April 2022