Hands-on multiculturalism: learning about everyday diversity in urban England

As Britain’s cities, towns and countryside become more ethnically diverse, it is important that issues of diversity and multiculture are taught in relevant and sensitive ways. In this blog, Katy Bennett and Giles Mohan reflect on their teaching workshop at the Migration Museum Project’s Call Me By My Name exhibition last year and on the research that underpinned it. We will be publishing two further blogs about their workshops with school groups over the next week.

As Britain’s towns and cities become increasingly diverse, teaching about multicultural becomes more and more important. ‘Minority’ groups are found no longer only in large (post-) industrial cities like Manchester or Birmingham but also in smaller urban centres like Boston and Peterborough. The maps show census data which reflects these changes, with the green and blue shadings indicating more diverse areas. The changes from the 1991 map to the 2011 map reveal more areas becoming diverse, and already diverse areas – such as parts of London – becoming even more diverse.

Source: Gemma Catney (2016) ‘The Changing Geographies of Ethnic Diversity in England and Wales, 1991–2011’, Population, Space and Place, Volume 22, Issue 8, 750–65.

The geographies of multiculture have changed and are continually changing, so that all areas, and the schools they contain, need to think about how people engage with cultural diversity and difference. As part of the Migration Museum Project’s Call Me By My Name exhibition in 2016, we ran a teaching workshop to help students think about their own identity and how they identify and relate to others in their daily lives. Our workshop took place in the space of the exhibition, surrounded by photographs, artwork and artefacts that brought into the room personal experiences of migration, refugee camps, loss of home and loved ones and experiences of moving to the UK. Haunting the space were the fake ‘life’ jackets used by migrants and found on beaches, exhibits counting relatives lost in perilous sea crossings and the vulnerability of lives lived in camps, at borders and on the margins of societies.

We began the workshop with Year 8 students by asking them to walk around the room. When we clapped, they had to form into self-selecting groups of four or five (i.e with no intervention from ourselves) and we asked them to draw around both their hands on A4 sheets of plain paper. They then wrote on their left-hand outline words that describe how they see themselves and on their right-hand outline words that they think other people would use to describe them. Next, they were asked to talk in their groups about the words they had used to describe each hand, and how they felt about the words others might use to describe them. After a few minutes of these group discussions, in the course of which we mingled and chatted, a few students stood up to talk about their hand drawings and labelling.

The aim was to open up questions of cultural identity and to think how inadequate words and categories are for capturing complex and shifting identities. One person, for example, labelled themselves as Somalian, from Milton Keynes, and moving from Sweden – and even then they were aware that these labels didn’t really capture who they were but were ways they used to help others position them. When it came to how others might label them, however, they replied ‘African’ or ‘black’. In most cases, there were differences between how people identified themselves and how they thought others would identify them.

We asked the students why they sat with whom they did, because we were also interested in the ways in which groups form. One group of young men were largely of Ghanaian origin and were vocal and confident; other groups were a bit more mixed ethnically and nationally, with only one or two putting themselves forward as spokespeople.

The dynamics of the room were used as a way of thinking about the small-scale geographies of multiculture. While the school body was very mixed ethnically, like many classrooms across the UK, groups sometimes followed particular ethnic and national lines. Most students were used to using ethnic and racial labels like ‘white’ or ‘African’, but were equally aware that these were quite blunt categories which concealed lots of complexity and contradictions.

It is these same everyday ‘micro’-geographies that we explored in a research project called Living Multiculture: the new geographies of ethnic diversity and the changing formations of multiculture in England, which we conducted as part of a team led by Professor Sarah Neal.

Mural in Hackney, east London. ©Author’s own

The Living Multiculture project started from the reality of the changing geography of ethnic diversity in contemporary Britain – the patterns shown in the maps above. Places are changing, and we wanted to understand how people understand and live through these changes. We also wanted to examine ‘everyday’ encounters across ethnic difference against the background of the popular image, in the media and among many politicians, that multiculturalism in Britain had ‘failed’ – particularly post-BREXIT – and that cities are riven with segregated neighbourhoods and ethnic and racial tension. It was not that we wanted to turn a blind eye to very real conflicts, but to argue that, for many people, most of the time they rub along. Our main question was ‘How do people live and experience multiculture as part of their everyday lives?’


We studied this question through fieldwork in three areas, each of which represented a different aspect of Britain’s changing ethnic geography.

  1. Some cities that were already diverse are becoming ‘superdiverse’ with the arrival of new migrant groups. For this group, we chose the Borough of Hackney in London.
  2. Some ethnic groups that first settled in inner cities are now moving outwards, as their social and economic status improves. For this group, we studied the newly diverse suburb of Oadby in Leicestershire.
  3. As noted, some large towns and small cities are becoming diverse for the first time – for this, we chose Milton Keynes as an example.

You can find out more on our website and in a new book we have co-authored with the rest of the team, but some of the key findings are:

  1. We studied the places where people gather and mingle – cafes, parks, libraries and colleges. We found that these are important sites for people to be together in quite relaxed and informal ways, even though a lot of thinking and design goes into making them seem informal. For example, in the chain restaurants we studied, it was the informality of the fast-food model that enabled people to rub shoulders in easy ways.
  2. We also found that ‘things’ and places matter to these relationships. The design of internal college spaces or shopping malls all aided flows of people or encouraged mingling. Mundane things like park benches or car parks were all crucial for allowing people to encounter one another.
  3. But social skills were also important for living cultural difference. Managing the un/easiness of being thrown together in a room with us and being asked questions about identity involves considerable skills. One such skill students used was knowing how and when to joke with whom. Like some of our respondents, they knew that ethnic labels concealed as much as they revealed, and they could push the boundaries of these labels without generally causing offence. It was this knowing-ness about how to get along with diversity that came through in our workshop and which we explored in our various research contexts.

Drawing around your hands might seem playful, but it opens up a whole series of questions about the micro-geographies of multiculture.


Dr Katy Bennett is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Leicester, where she works on questions of social and cultural geography, especially identity, emotion, home, community and multiculture. Professor Giles Mohan is at the Open University and works on international development and migration. Together they were part of a team headed by Professor Sarah Neal called Living Multiculture. Out of this project the team has just published a new book called Lived Experiences of Multiculture: The New Social and Spatial Relations of Diversity, details of which can be found here.

Colin O’Brien – humanist street chronicler

A weird coincidence occurs shortly after Colin O’Brien and I sit down for a coffee in Hackney PictureHouse, just across the road from where his photos formed part of the Migration Museum Museum’s first exhibition of 100 Images of Migration at Hackney Museum. A young man, George Nelson, sits down at our table and, spying the books Colin has laid out in front of us, apologises for intruding on our conversation – but he has to show us the image he has open on his phone. It’s the front cover of Colin’s book, Travellers’ Children in London Fields, which George (a photographer himself, it emerges) has just been recommending to a contact. There follows a conversation in which George expresses his admiration for Colin’s work, and Colin, generous and courteous as ever, asks questions about George’s work. Throughout it all, Colin seems completely unfazed by the coincidence or the praise, making no big deal about either.

TravellersChildren London Fields Hackney E8 1987

The cover photo for Colin’s “Travellers’ Children in London Fields”, 1987 – ‘I took many pictures over a period of three weeks and they took me into their confidence. It was only when I started to print the images that I realised what an amazing set of photographs they were.’

Making no big deal about it is not a bad way of summing up Colin’s approach to his work. He’s certainly made no big deal about it in terms of money, though he is entirely without bitterness on that account. ‘When I was starting out,’ he says, ‘there were two routes open to you if you wanted to make it big as a photographer. You could become a war photographer, as Don McCullin did, but I was too scared to do that; or you could do a David Bailey and become a celebrity photographer – but I just wasn’t interested in that world.’ In fact, Colin never became a photographer as such, not in the professional sense. All his photography was done in the margins of his working life, which was spent as a media resources technician for the ILEA and the GLC, and at the London College of Printing. For two hours or so every day, though, he would walk the streets with his camera, taking photographs of people who interested him.

Cowboy + girlfriend 1960

Cowboy and Girlfriend, Bolton, 1960 – ’Because I kept very bad records in the old days I thought that the picture had been taken in London, but a very nice lady wrote to me and told me that it was taken in Bolton. She named the very street, long since been demolished – she said Bolton was now a mess! It has probably been one of my most liked images.‘

He’s been taking photographs almost all his life. His Uncle Will gave him a box camera when Colin was eight years old (one of the photographs he took with this camera is in 100 Images: ‘Raymond Scallione and Joe Bacuzzi’, two boys posing with Italian magnificence on the bonnet of a black Ford in 1948), he had a Leica at the age of 14, has had more than 30 exhibitions in the course of his lifetime and is still – now well into his 70s – taking photos, both digital and film, and processing and printing his work in the traditional way in a darkroom.

2 Raymond Scalionne and Joe Bucuzzi Hatton Garden late 40's - Copy

Hatton Garden, 1948 – ‘Raymond Scallione and his friend, Joe Bacuzzi, pose for me in this photograph taken when I was eight years old.’

In theory he’s retired but he has provided the photographs to more than 50 of the famous Spitalfields Life blog, he has just completed a new exhibition called London Life (beautifully recreated in a book published by Spitalfields Life and available on their site) and he has a new project lined up, on West End life, which he is undertaking with a young photographer, Alex Pink. You get the impression that Colin is not putting the lens cap back on his camera any day soon.

Funny Faces Burgess Park 1984 copy

Burgess Park Lake, Old Kent Road, 1984 – ‘I’d photographed these girls before. They sat on a bench beside this man who had been following them around and, when I raised my camera again, each of them pulled a funny face and poked their tongues out.’

Brief snippets of his life emerge in the course of our talk. Although he has no trace of an Irish accent (apparently one emerged somewhat unexpectedly, and to the great amusement of his friends, in the course of an interview on the Robert Elms radio show), he is proud to describe himself as of Irish extraction, his grandparents having moved to England from Ireland in the late 19th century. His childhood was spent in London during what he calls the ‘threadbare years’, the last years of the war and the half-decade that followed. His adolescence was mostly playing football in the park with an impressive roster of future writers (Bill Naughton, Frederic Raphael and Brian Glanville among them), and he celebrated narrowly missing out on national service by ‘bumming around’ in his 20s. He had the opportunity to photograph the Beatles before they were famous (he used to take photographs for Dick James, the music publisher who took over Northern Songs) but turned it down, because he was too busy – or maybe, I wonder, because he had a foretaste of their future fame, and wasn’t interested. And all the time he was doing what inspired him, the real job his 9 to 5 job allowed him the time and space to do (when he wasn’t studying for a degree and a masters): taking pictures on the streets of London, capturing the passing scene of an ever-changing city.

Comings and goings copy

Comings and Goings, 1986 – Corner of Bacon Street and Brick Lane, Spitalfields

It’s clearly not the money that motivates him. Most of his exhibitions and publications he has paid for himself. And he’s not, as we’ve seen, interested in fame. His photography is an act of kinship similar to his involvement in community projects and campaigns such as the fight to save the Marquis of Lansdowne or the attempt to prevent the development of Norton Folgate. Something similar motivates him to continue taking his camera out on the street – an insatiable curiosity for, and an empathetic engagement in, other people’s lives. I’m guessing here, because this grandiose kind of phrase isn’t likely to be what Colin would say. His account would be something along the lines of ‘I just like people’, and maybe it is just that. Certainly there appears to be no distance, literally and metaphorically, between Colin and his subjects: his photos are imbued with a rare warmth and generosity.

Kids with pram wheels 2 copy

Wandsworth, 1973 – ‘These boys knew how to make good use of old pram wheels!’

Ah yes, that generosity. The books he’s brought with him are for me – an act of unassuming kindness on his part that touches me deeply. When I am flicking through the books later, making notes for this blog and trying to work out why his images have such emotional heft, it is this I come back to: his generosity, his engagement in other people’s lives, his sense that nothing divides us – we are all in this together.

Accident 1962 daytime copy (2)

Junction of Clerkenwell Road and Farringdon Road, 11 June 1962 – ‘I read later that a child died in this accident. There was a rumour that the traffic lights malfunctioned, and all turned green at the same time.’



Colin O’Brien’s photos can be viewed on his website, His latest book, London Life, is published by Spitalfields Life Books and is available from all good bookstores and on the Spitalfields Life site.