A new perspective on Indian contributions to British culture.
“This experience reinforces the importance of... building face-to-face relationships. Collaborations were crucial to the success of both grants and for creating opportunities for reaching much larger and wider audiences than we had originally envisaged.” - Professor Susheila Nasta, Open University
“Personal relationships, particularly when working internationally, are crucial. They keep everyone’s interest alive and ensure that communication remains open between you and your partners,” says Professor Susheila Nasta.
Professor Nasta knows what she is talking about. She has just returned from a tour of India with an exhibition that explores the little-known contribution of South Asians to British culture pre-1950. The tour happened due to a network of relationships between institutions and people in the UK and India and a timely coalescence of interests.
Professor Nasta was project director on an AHRC grant entitled ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870-1950’ from 2007 – 2010. The project was a multi-disciplinary collaboration between the Open University, where Professor Nasta is Professor of Modern Literature, Oxford University, Kings College London, and the British Library. The grant application was submitted before Pathways to Impact was introduced but from the start the project was keen to engage and disseminate its findings beyond an academic audience.
“Our aim was to stimulate debates on heritage and deepen cross-cultural national and international understanding between Britain and India, so from the outset this was much more than an academic project. We wanted to raise awareness of how this little-known history of the early South Asian (then Indian) presence in Britain not only shaped cultural, political, and intellectual life but importantly deepens present day understandings of diaspora. We are constantly on the lookout for ways to reach as wide an audience as possible,” says Professor Nasta.
During the lifetime of the original Making Britain grant the team hosted events at public galleries and libraries, was featured on national radio programmes , and also produced a digital timeline and database showing key moments of Asian history in Britain, one with Guardian Online and the other at the Open University, also accessible through the British Library. The end of project conference, held at the British Library, launched a two-day exhibition that was also open to the public. Outreach was heightened by a specialist public relations agency, funded with additional support from the OU, and the support of the British Library’s existing regional programme.
At the start of the project in 2007 there was no intention to expand public outreach activities outside of the UK. However, due to what Professor Nasta describes as “fortunate timing and the coming together of mutually beneficial circumstances”, Making Britain developed further winning an additional AHRC one-year grant to take a revised exhibition of the project’s findings on tour to India.
“At the time Britain was looking at ways to strengthen and acknowledge its longstanding relationship with India,” explains Professor Nasta. “The British Council saw the exhibition we had developed with the British Library for a tour of UK libraries and asked us to bring it to India. Initially this was just a preview for use at high profile receptions during David Cameron’s visit in 2010, but developed into a wider collaboration with the British Council, the National Archives of India, and RCUK to take it on a tour of seven Indian cities.”
Linked to the British Council Connecting Classrooms scheme, schools were introduced as an additional audience for the Indian tour. With colleagues and the support of the British Library, Professor Nasta produced school materials enlivened by British Library digital resources and workshops were run for over 400 Indian school children. Overall the tour attracted over 6000 visitors and the project’s UK website received up to 3,000 new unique visits every month. A UK-based PR agency working in tandem with the British Council achieved wide coverage in the Indian media.
The exhibition has been seen by Foreign Office officials in India; it was described by one as ‘essential knowledge’ for every British diplomat coming to India. It has also been taken to Germany on the request of the Humboldt University in Berlin, where audiences included schoolchildren and the general public.
Professor Nasta believes that Pathways to Impact is generating a wider awareness within academia of how research can benefit society to shift current perspectives. She concludes: “This experience reinforces the importance of personal contact and building face-to-face relationships. Collaborations were crucial to the success of both grants and for creating opportunities for reaching much larger and wider audiences than we had originally envisaged. Everyone gave generously of their time and expertise and the financial cost of this project does not reflect the real cost in the time and energy invested to make it happen. It would not have happened without the strong personal relationships and good will of those involved.”