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2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday May 4, 2023

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

‘Nothing about us without us’: how the DE-BIAS project will explore participation, partnership and community engagement

As the DE-BIAS project gets underway, Cristina Da Milano from project partner ECCOM reflects on some of the project’s key concepts. Read on to explore the relevance of participation, partnership and community engagement - and the methodologies connected to their application - to the cultural heritage sector.

A group of people stood in conversation
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Blekinge museum

The data space supporting DE-BIAS project aims to promote a more inclusive and respectful approach to the description of digital collections and the telling of stories and histories of minoritised communities. The project began in January 2023, and over the course of two years, will develop an online tool to automatically detect problematic terms in cultural heritage metadata and provide information about their problematic background. As the project starts to undertake this work, we consider it important to outline the project’s understanding of the words, concepts, and even of the mottos we use in our journey towards progress.

‘Nothing about us without us’

‘Nothing about us without us’ is a motto said to have originated in early European politics (dating as far back as the 16th Century) and was first invoked by the South African disability rights movement in the 1990s. It is used to communicate the idea that no policy should be decided by any representative without the full and direct participation of members of the group(s) affected by that policy. The words strongly state the pivotal role of participation; they acknowledge the importance of taking steps to meaningfully embed community representation  and push us to reflect on the idea that services and policies should involve members of groups and communities affected by that policy. 

In the cultural sector, community engagement - something we see as central to the DE-BIAS project - is generally understood as a community-centred orientation based on dialogue. It aims to enable community members to better understand topics and contexts and therefore facilitate stronger relationships and participation among the cultural sector and minoritised communities.

But  what about the link between these ideas and that of audience development, another central concept for European cultural policies? To the European Commission, audience development is defined as a strategic, dynamic, and interactive process of making culture widely accessible. It aims at engaging individuals and communities in experiencing, enjoying, participating in and valuing the arts through various means available today for cultural operators. 

The definition is quite broad and aligns with that of community engagement: it refers to access, participation, and representation, the lack of which are the main barriers preventing people from taking part in cultural life. However, the term ‘audience’ could imply a passive attitude, and the term ‘development’ recalls the idea of cultural organisations as developers of visitors or spectators, with a paternalistic and top-down approach, constructing a hierarchy that we would like to see dismantled soon. 

A group of people working together, bending over a table with post-its and paper
Project WELCOMING MUSEUMS, workshop on digital storytelling in museums conducted by ECCOM, a partner in the De-Bias project, in which it is responsible for establishing a fair methodology of work with the communities © ECCOM
A group of people working together, bending over a table with post-its and paper

Partnerships and co-creation

The strategy associated with Audience Development processes mentioned above points towards systemic and organisational change leading cultural institutions to put audiences – or, better, people - at the centre of what they do. This can be done through different means. Developing meaningful partnerships is surely one of them. Partnerships mean networking, creating strong relationships with different stakeholders in society, and getting in touch with diverse groups of people or communities through mediators, whose role is central to build trust and avoid biases from the very start. 

Co-creation is another one. Co-creative processes entail active participation not only in activities but also in decision-making processes; this means sharing power, and although this might be a new approach for some cultural institutions, it is important to understand how communities evolve and how their evolution can be matched (and sustained!) by the institutions surrounding them.

The concepts of partnerships and co-creation imply quite radical choices for cultural institutions and they are both rooted in the idea of a deep organisational change and a revolution in terms of their social, economic, and cultural accountability. 

Find out more

The ultimate outcome of both concepts-turned-actions is to create social capital and stronger relational networks within society. This is why we agreed to develop the DE-BIAS project around a strong core: the work with communities, aimed at promoting a more inclusive and respectful approach to the description of digital collections from cultural heritage institutions. Only this kind of collaboration can lead to a thorough understanding of heritage, and therefore a more enjoyable, real and respectful experience for those who engage with it.  

You can find out more about the DE-BIAS project on the project page, and and follow our hashtag #DeBias on social media to stay updated with our future activities.