Last edited 05 Feb 2023

Main author

Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Diversity and inclusion in conservation training

‘How do you climb the scaffold in a hijab?’

CHIP programme.jpg
Participants on the CHIP programme investigating the former canal keeper’s cottage. From left to right: Jacob Long (SPAB scholar), Khondokar Md Moshiur Rahman Shoikot, Catharine Bull (SPAB), Libby Watts (SPAB), Katriona Byrne, Tyler Cook, Flavia Danila, Kirren Channa, Muhammad Javaid, Serena Gildea (SPAB scholar), Sinead Scullion (SPAB scholar) (Photo: Amal Badr).


Current concerns about diversity and inclusion in third-level training in conservation call for educators to develop imaginative and engaging approaches to learning.

Teaching conservation at postgraduate level, one becomes quickly aware of how the canon (what is taught and considered should be taught) serves to squash diversity. Time is precious, students are busy, so the key facts and concepts are focused on – the same galaxy of white men are trotted out to tell the history and philosophy of the field. One has to work hard to reintroduce ‘others’ into it, to find the research, to make connections and to ask guest lecturers to do the same.

Fortunately, there are some good sources out there, including those disseminated by Historic England, so there is no excuse not to have at least women and LGBTQ+ historical figures represented, as well as all kinds of buildings and sites. Limitations arise when work to include diverse ethnicities focuses on narratives where the agency lies mainly with the white person. I use the tale of two sugar bowls to investigate issues of counter-narratives in one of the slave trades. However, I quickly realised that slavery narratives may be as culturally irrelevant to a young black student studying in my university as to a young white person, or at least as we currently talk about them. They can also continue the paradigm of oppression and trauma. It is as if, in order to be culturally relevant to me, my teacher talks only about the Great Irish Famine to represent my Irish identity.

It may seem an impossible task to adequately reflect all the identities in a class, but practice offers some comfort, as it seems that being more inclusive of certain groups creates the space for others to feel that they too are eligible to be part of the conversation.

Developing an inclusive pedagogy is fun but full of challenges. Every year some students are diagnosed with a learning divergence during their postgrad studies. This year 50 per cent of my postgraduate students were known to me as learning divergent. Some start off with learning support statements, and some differences such as dyslexia are picked up with the first written assignment. Others, such as autism and ADHD, are harder to spot; with these latter, students usually self-diagnose with follow-on professional assessment and diagnosis provided by the university.

Notably, a learning divergence does not inhibit a student from attaining top marks in a cohort. In a recent class discussion, arising from the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain’s identifying a broad range of inclusivity themes in new academic work, including learning divergence, an opinion was voiced that there was 100 per cent learning divergence in the class. If 50–100 per cent of people are learning divergent, does divergence dissolve into normality? And if we cater for all together, are we catering for all sufficiently? Or equally? It is not much of a leap to suggest that this has implications for the conservation industry, and reinforces the urgency to expand the range of ways in which we interpret heritage and engage with people. No two people are the same, no two people learn in the same way. We are all gloriously diverse.

Un(shared) heritage

I have found the concept of ‘un(shared) heritage’ useful in exploring diversity and inclusivity. This goes beyond contested heritage and guilty architecture, of which we have a multiplicity of material to discuss at the moment, from statues to graffiti, to what to do with buildings of the Nazi regime, to how to record or rebuild places after wars. The ‘unshared’ part recognises that we have different cultures and backgrounds, that some heritage belongs to only one group, or has certain significances for one group; it can be communicated to other groups but may never be shared by them, emotionally or intellectually. The tradition of the elaborate graves of some traveller groups is a good way of starting this discussion. The concept was devised in response to the shared heritage mantra, which I find repressive of difference and therefore of dialogue. But this may depend on where you stand on the value of identity politics.

The student cohort at Birmingham City University (BCU) is composed of 52 per cent BAME (black Asian and minority ethnic) students at undergrad level. This is a term I hate, being so broad as to be meaningless: the equivalent for me could be an ‘Atlantic seaboard native’. However, it seemed to be of some use in gathering and assessing statistics to show differential rates of attrition, award and progression among students. In March 2021 the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recommended that the government stop using the term because it emphasises certain ethnic minority groups and excludes others (mixed, other, and white ethnic groups), and the term masks disparities between different ethnic groups.

The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) in its EDI (Equality Diversity Inclusion) Strategy (2019) acknowledged that many groups of people were under-represented in the profession. The image of the architect in our culture as a rich white male is persistent, which means that those of a lower socio-economic background, an ethnic minority background, or female, have to be, or perceive they have to be, stars to be successful. From the outside therefore the profession is seen as not accessible to many, and the length of time it takes to go through Parts 1, 2 and 3 to fully qualify, certainly push the later years beyond many. Other professions such as law, accountancy and medicine have much less discrepancy. As conservation is based in the school of architecture and design in BCU and I teach across the school, I encounter the difference in prospects between students – not only regarding jobs, but in interviews, placements, internships and so on. From a recent survey we know that many students do not know any working architects or conservation professionals, do not have informal mentors, and do not have a network to arrange placements or work experience.

Conversations with conservation’s visiting professor Anna Keay, from the Landmark Trust, led to a pilot programme to try to redress some of these inequalities. This is a professional mentorship programme, which is not as onerous as a placement or internship, but which offers the framework of professional dialogue, focused on a real, live project. With the Landmark Trust the project was to assess a site in the early stages of consideration for development as a holiday cottage. Students are exposed to the works of conservation, the issues that need to be considered and questions of philosophy and viability. Contacts are made and subjects gained for presentation at interview with potential employers.

This led to the CHIP programme (Conservation and Heritage in Practice), a partnership with SPAB. Chapter 1 was held in June 2022 in BCU over two days. It focused on a redundant former canal-keeper’s cottage nearby. Students from different design courses and levels undertook a set of exercises in conjunction with the current SPAB scholars. Hand drawing plans and compiling condition surveys were used to look at the historic fabric, bringing a level of enquiry, on a brick-by-brick scale, to the building. A walking tour and consideration of context generated ideas for reuse.

Students who were invited stood out during tuition on conservation, outside of the normal conservation courses, or were recommended by their tutors, with talent and engagement being key factors. Most came from BAME backgrounds, or had other minority identifiers, reflecting both the nature of our student body and the positive inclusivity measure we were aiming for.

The professional mentorship framework, without the stress of assignments or exams, helps create the space to explore ideas. It enables participants to reach a comfort zone in dialogue, which one needs to thrive in a work situation, and which in the recent working/studying-from-home climate is more elusive. Some of the highlights identified by students were the on-site visit; experience with a real building/historic fabric; working with the SPAB scholars and hearing their back stories; working with professionals; learning about conservation; and gaining confidence to talk about conservation to employers.

While celebrating the success of this chapter, I suspect that the CHIPies were probably the best-resourced students. They were capable of forging careers in conservation themselves, if they wished, without our intervention, able to attend an unpaid session – with family support, income, the value placed on education, freedom to choose, childcare, accessibility and so on. They had overcome the barriers they may have had. We in the industry need more people to fill all the wonderful roles there are, and have to attract these people to us. The next chapters planned will take us around Birmingham with architect Alexa Woodward, head of design at Cordia Blackswan, and to Walsall with conservation officer Devinder Matharu. Sites we can visit, chat about, climb the scaffold on, are the key. That brings me back to the question in my title. I once thought it was a stupid question, exhibiting all kinds of prejudices, but now I am not so sure.

This article originally appeared as ‘How do you climb the scaffold in a hijab?’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 173, published in September 2022. It was written by Katriona Byrne, a conservation officer by profession, and course director of the MA and postgrad programmes in conservation of the historic environment at Birmingham City University.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

Related articles on Designing Buildings


[edit] To make a comment about this article, or to suggest changes, click 'Add a comment' above. Separate your comments from any existing comments by inserting a horizontal line.

Designing Buildings Anywhere

Get the Firefox add-on to access 20,000 definitions direct from any website

Find out more Accept cookies and
don't show me this again