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Sunday, 3rd December 2023




1. What is your role at the eminent world famous V & A Museum in terms of engaging with communities?

I work part time as the Intercultural Community Programme Manager at the V&A. My work involves both engaging with communities to learn through guided tours given by trained intercultural guides about the artefacts that we have relating to their cultures and faiths and working with them in partnership to organise cultural events often related to festivals or current museum exhibitions.  We want to encourage communities to feel that these objects are part of their living heritage and to take 'ownership' of them. I have also worked on a project inviting members of faith communities to comment on V&A religious objects  in order to gain the cultural significance of the artefacts which may not be know to such an extent by the staff.  Occasionally we offer themed intercultural workshops to community groups.

 2. You have achieved huge success with the Jains - some of their beautiful sculptures are on display at V&A, but what you have done is to showcase the living community, and help them to take ownership and pride in thecollection. How have you done this?

In 2005 the V&A was awarded a heritage Lottery Grant to develop cultural ownership and capacity building within the V&A.  Part of my remit was to organise faith advisory groups to enable members of faith groups to comment on a number of V&A images in order to establish their significance to the originating community.  The Jain advisory group was very eye opening – revealing that objects not on display were of huge ritual and religious significance and informing us much more about the Jain sculptures on display as well as numerous ideas on how we could add the human dimension to the interpretation of the objects on display or on the website.  The comments from this group was added to the V&A website allowing the participants to take pride in their contributions.  Around the same period we were also able to film members from the Jain community speaking about their favourite Jain objects on display in the Museum or within their community settings.

We are now working with the Jainpedia project organising events around a display of recently digitalised Jain manuscripts.  We have a Jain guide who can give tours of this collection and he himself has trained volunteer guides to give tours of our display for Jain community groups and for special partnership events.

 3. What is your personal experience of doing this work? Is it fun, difficult, frustrating, or inspiring?

Oh it is fun and inspiring!  The only frustration was that some people we asked to attend the advisory groups would not attend as they felt they were not expert enough! That was not necessarily what we were looking for.  We wanted personal responses, which as the response showed, it did not need to be the experts who pinpointed the most spiritual items hidden within our collections. We do not want expertise to remove the spirit of an object.


Shobhna and Pratima Haria completing the coloured floor painting - Rangoli, at the V&A Museum. Credit: V & A Images.

4. One striking example is your work with Shobhna and Pratima Haria on Rangoli painting at the V&A, which has drawn large crowds and generated a lot of interest. Please tell us more about this.

Shobhna and Pratima Haira live in London and are members of the living Jain community. We have commissioned five or six Rangolis at the V&A over the years.  I personally have worked twice with them.  Once they created a beautiful geometric designed Rangoli made from pulses and seeds for a family weekend on the theme of peace and the environment (Ayambil Festival Rangoli - see image below).  It was so beautiful we were allowed to keep it in the gallery for a week.  We then swept up the seeds and rice and returned them to Shobhna and Pratima so that they could feed them to the birds. 

In November they made a very complicated square Rangoli with six images of Queen Trishala’s dreams (pictured above).  This took them three days to make from coloured pigments.  This was part of a Jain Diwali weekend organised with the Jainpedia project which has been digitalising Jain manuscripts in collections throughout the country.  We had over 5000 participate in activities over that weekend and most of them stopped in fascination to observe their work.  What is so nice about such living art demonstrations is that they attract all audiences and I was hearted to see a group of Islamic women stop at length to watch and discuss the art work.  I heard them saying “Oh it’s for Diwali – maybe they will do something like this for EID.”



The finished Ayambil Rangoli, credit: V & A Images

5. What would you say to other organisations who wish to engage with communities? Many feel this is a daunting task, and often do not know where to begin. What is your advice? Is there a magic formula?

It can be daunting for community groups to understand the lengths one need to go to organise events in a big institution and one needs to manage community groups expectations from the start.  It is best if an organisation works with well established community groups or ones which have an education focus or who are committed to a project as they have been awarded a grant to develop specific aspects of their work.  If possible I will research a group to see if they have worked with similar organisations and then I can ring them up to find out how it was for them.  Really it is trial and error and you soon learn the groups that you can work with again or what aspects of their work you can establish a working relationship/partnership with.   One needs to establish a relationship of mutual respect with the partner organisation and often it is the commitment of individuals who lead here.  Once this has been established you can regularly work with one another or help each other out.  Diverse Ethics is such an organisation, supporting us, giving us contacts, helping to promote Jain events and of course Dr. Atul Shah has participated in our community consultation groups,  web projects and even sat on our panel on Religion in Museums at the V&A Diversity conference last year.

Article added on 28th March 2011 at 7:58pm
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