Living Heritage

By Corbishley, Mike | History Today, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Living Heritage


Corbishley, Mike, History Today


Mike Corbishley explains how English Heritage, custodian of much of the best of England built historical environment, makes the past accessible to young minds.

ENCOURAGING CHILDREN to think about history is surely one of the most important aspects of their education, whether it is done in the formal environment of the classroom or informally by enjoying visits to heritage sites or museums. History is a compulsory part of the British National Curriculum, but only until the age of fourteen. We have, therefore, only a short time to introduce them to history, to teach children to investigate it for themselves and, we hope, to care about it enough when they are adults to help preserve it and celebrate it as part of our cultural identity. In order to reinforce their formal education we must think about how children as individuals experience history for themselves, at home in front of the television or finding out about the past in visits to sites, museums, galleries and libraries.

   Scrape, scrape -- I'm gently being discovered by the archaeologist's
   trowel. I have been broken for about 2,000 years now. I remember being a
   piece of clay on Hilly Fields where I was picked up by a Colchester potter.
   He took me home and put me on a wheel and the wheel went round and round.
   He was a good, careful potter. He decorated me with little bits of clay. My
   patterns were very beautiful. I was sold in the market place. I fell off
   the shelf and broke into little pieces. Catherine Gildea, aged ten.

Creative writing formed an important part of a history project in this girl's Colchester primary school. Pupils and staff worked with English Heritage Education and the Colchester Archaeological Trust to discover their local Roman heritage. Through the enthusiasm of an individual archaeologist who brought real Roman pottery into school, members of this class were able to take themselves back to the past.

But it is not always possible to have someone or something interact with a child on a one-to-one level. Usually there is physical barrier that stands between us and the evidence for the past. Visitors are rarely able to touch actual objects from the past. A barrier often exists simply because we rarely see a complete object or site. Visitors to ancient sites, more often than not, are presented with only a small part of what was once there -- the east wall of a priory church or the foundations of a Roman villa, for example. Visitors want to know the whole of what was once there and, increasingly, want to know how we know what we claim to know about the past.

Museums and heritage sites have always looked for new ways of presenting themselves and their evidence. Increasingly now they put on exhibitions and displays driven by computer programmes that can deliver complex light and sound experiences. Sites also use human interpreters more and more -- from characters in costume to full-scale costumed events.

But what of the younger visitors? What kind of a deal do they get? Their experience varies widely: from being left out of any form of on-site interpretation or literature, to whole museums, such as Eureka, dedicated entirely to them. Sites and museums frequently try to present themselves in a lively way, yet their displays often still need the intervention of an adult in the family or of the teacher on a school visit. To compensate, many of these places run workshops and holiday activities especially designed for children.

At English Heritage, we have an experienced education team which provides some on-site facilities and a wealth of resources for teachers to make effective use of both our own sites and the greater historic environment for which we are responsible. We encourage the use of historic sites and collections for all curriculum subjects, not just for history. We are particularly keen to provide teachers with resources to develop the creativity of their pupils. …

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