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Tribes: A discussion with David Lammy

In the latest in a series of online in-conversation events around the Science Museum Group’s value of being Open for All, Director & Chief Executive Sir Ian Blatchford talked to the Right Hon David Lammy MP about key themes from his latest book: Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society.

Hosted in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery – which provided a fitting reminder of the profound impact of technology during the current pandemic – the event was moderated by Paulette Simpson, Executive Director of The Voice newspaper.

Tribes is a fascinating exploration of both the benign and malign effects of our very human need to belong.

How this need – genetically programmed and socially acquired – can manifest itself in positive ways, collaboratively achieving great things that individuals alone cannot. And yet how, in recent years, globalisation and digitisation have led to new, more pernicious kinds of tribalism.

The starting point for the book – and the talk – was a DNA test taken by David Lammy at the request of the Science Museum, as part of a project to commemorate the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.

Whilst what can be drawn from the results of such tests has since been widely disputed, it provided the catalyst for Lammy’s subsequent voyage of personal identity to his examination of identity politics, Britain’s new tribalism and where the country is – and could – be headed.

‘[It’s] very special that the book starts with the Science Museum, so it’s lovely to come here many years later to talk about the journey it made me embark on.’ – David Lammy

Similarly wide-ranging and riveting, the conversation charted Lammy’s roots in Guyana – his parents part of the Windrush generation – and the impacts of slavery on Caribbean identity.

The British-Caribbean community, his upbringing in Tottenham (also his constituency of twenty years) and his relationship with the city of Peterborough, where he was a schoolboy, provided rich material for an exploration of meaning, place and identity, and ‘the new tribalism in this country’.

In discussing civic pride, the importance of community and how ‘in this atomised place, do we forge a nation’, Lammy highlighted the important role museums can play: ‘Great museums can play a powerful role; local museums are really important in telling the story of neighbourhood and community.’

A recent example of this powerful storytelling is Above the Noise, an exhibition about communities in Bradford at the National Science and Media Museum.

On his desire to unify the nation, Lammy spoke about building a future where we can negotiate difference and move forward together.

‘Identity is not the beginning and end of the conversation. If it’s about empathy then identity politics runs the risk of just increasing the silos. The end point is a common humanity, an encounter culture where we’re able to have dialogue.’

Lammy also spoke to the paradox of the British empire being built on subjugation but the end result being a multicultural Britain with links across the world. By addressing uncomfortable parts of our past we help to progress a better future.

Using the analogy of a university to demonstrate the benefit of diversity ‘because it’s when the anthropologist meets the economist meets the physicist that inventions are made.’

Lammy went on to say: ‘Much of [the Science Museum] is interdisciplinary. It’s not just science: it’s when science meets culture and the arts and application. Looking here [in Information Age] at the first technology that gave us the BBC just opposite me; that’s the power of diversity. So of course that’s the case with human beings. Out of Empire comes connectivity but not if it’s built on ideas of supremacy.’

Sir Ian spoke of the poignant timing of this conversation, where the pressing issues of our time – including climate change, recession, the upcoming US election, Black Lives Matter and the COVID-19 pandemic – are forces that may pull us apart. Yet how ‘the task before all of us is one of empathy and imagination in terms of understanding each other’s identity and how we see the world.’

The thought-provoking discussion ended on a note of optimism from all speakers: ‘When we don’t think about what divides us, it’s very hopeful.’

The full conversation can be viewed on YouTube.