Third Space in Culture, Heritage and Learning

Our current Erasmus + project on Negotiating Identities in the Third Space is about to conclude. As I am beginning to draw together the various outputs we’ve said we would produce, I’d like to share a few observations on my own learning about Third Space during the project to date.

The physical in Third Space

While from the very beginning, our group rejected what we felt to be a simplistic definition of Third Space as providing welcoming (and useful) physical infrastructure, we readily acknowledged that location does matter. It matters as a lived-in environment that shapes our experiences. This physical environment can, in its own right, be an important element in community-building, orientation and comfort. By the same token, however, it can also exclude people, either actively, by denying them entry altogether, or passively, by making them feel uncomfortable for various reasons. In this sense, space can and does play a role in Othering people, by defining standards for access. Viewed in this way, space quickly becomes a question of power relations: who owns/claims/rules the space? What behaviours/attributes/uses does the space sanction? How open is it to challenges to these standards?

Diversity and Third Space

These questions naturally lead us to matters of diversity, or put negatively: to risks of discrimination. This isn’t something we’ve discussed much in our project, but it’s come up a lot in other contexts of my recent work. The strength I see in using diversity (or anti-discrimination) approaches when working with Third Space is that it helps us examine power relations from a variety of perspectives. These cover all protected characteristics that legislation like the British Equality Act define, for example age, sex, disability, race, or religion/belief. Checking a space that is intended to be a Third Space through these diverse lenses can identify power imbalances that may otherwise remain unnoticed, and thus unchallenged.

Challenge in the Third Space

In diversity discourse it is now readily accepted that currently, power imbalances almost always exist. There are also generally dynamics at play which one group will not as readily perceive and understand as the other. To make a Third Space work, it is therefore important to enable challenges to these processes. As one of our project partners noted, everyone in the Third Space at all times must be empowered to change the rules of engagement. We’ve not so far been able to pin down exactly how this might be ensured in all contexts, but establishing early on a transparent and self-critical assessment of space in all its dimensions may be a good place to start.  

Facilitation and Third Space

In our project, we quickly came to agree that Third Space is always a facilitated space. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, if we accept the organisation of space, access and inter-personal relations through power, then every space is necessarily facilitated in one way or the other. There may be an Utopian ideal of a non-facilitated Third Space, i.e. one completely freed of power relations. In the case studies we examined, however, we found this to never actually be the case. Secondly, we also found through our case studies that without some form of facilitation, the imbalance of power could not be addressed, nor were those people excluded from certain spaces likely to attend.

The goals of Third Space

This aspect is one that emerged most strongly for me personally during our project. I feel that too many activities and methods are declared as ‘Third Space’ when all they may have in common is a desire to be ‘welcoming to all’. As we have seen, however, that desire alone is not enough. To make a Third Space is hard work, because it questions many of our certainties. In fact, I would go as far as suggesting that currently, where these certainties are not challenged, no Third Space has been created. This, therefore, becomes the key goal of a Third Space: to facilitate a co-creative process that changes the dominant dynamics. Co-creation and change to me are therefore key elements of a true Third Space. Third Space isn’t just a method for its own sake. It is aimed at a fundamental change. And in my mind, that change must aim at something beyond the boundaries of the temporary Third Space itself.

The Digital Third Space

Even before the Covid pandemic, the digital space was an important space for learning in my organisation. During the pandemic, it became the only space, not just for learning, but for all of our engagement, and it did so for months on end. We spent considerable resources not only on upgrading our digital infrastructure but also on piloting approaches to online and hybrid facilitation and learning. For us, this raised questions about how to turn a digital space into a Third Space. Our other project, with the local museum, is going some way to explore just that, and I will share the review of that at some point after that project’s completion. Suffice it to say for now that personally, I am convinced that the digitial space, where it is facilitated well, offers as many, if not more opportunities to become a Third Space than physical space does.

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