Ancient objects in our own hands

15th November 2002 at 00:00
Two of our headteachers from the Chase Cluster, which comprises five small first schools in Dorset, won Millennium Awards to work in Uganda and South Africa respectively with Link Community Development during the summer holidays. With these two global teachers, Kate Caldwell and Barbara Thomas, available the cluster staff decided to develop global citizenship for our nearly 500 four to nine-year-olds.

Professional development was an important strand in our planning and as this year's cluster link teacher, I arranged an in-service training day for 50 teachers and assistants at the British Museum in London. Addressing our current theme of Africa, and ancient Egypt as our world history module, we focused on these galleries at the museum.

The visual richness of the Sainsbury African Galleries excited everyone's interest. A wide variety of artefacts from Africa's past and present are stunningly displayed.

Led by Ben Burt, education curator, we were set the task of researching the links between African and European histories. Evidence of links formed by trade, conquest and colonisation, going back through the centuries to pre-Roman times, were found in a surprising number of displays.

Katharine Wiltshire, museum teacher at the British Museum, organised our day and led our Egyptian sessions. In these we focused on developing the thinking and discussion skills needed by young historians and global citizens learning about other cultures past and present.

If we were archaeologists given the problem of saving Egyptian relics from the rapidly rising waters of the Aswan Dam, what would we save and why? Imagining we were trustees of the museum and a government was demanding the return of their objects, what would be our response?

Confronting these dilemmas surrounded by the real treasures created some intensive discussion in our groups. Our knowledge and thinking about collections and conservation was challenged on several fronts.

We were delighted to find that the museum organises handling sessions of real artefacts, many of which are both ancient and valuable. We were given exquisite Egyptian and African objects in a variety of materials, but could we select which ones were genuine? Some of the answers were astonishing.

If we were to bring children to this or other museums we all agreed that problem-solving, making connections and handling real objects would all be highly motivating activities.

Katharine also urged us to help children to first look at their own communities to give a basis of comparison when approaching cultures of other times and places. By grouping our ideas of community and looking for representations we were also reminded of the selective nature of museum collections. While museums emphasise mummification, perhaps only two per cent of Egyptian society was in this stratum. Teachers using museums need to be mindful that, as well as correcting pre-conceptions, collections can also reinforce misleading stereotypes.

At the end of the day teachers commented that they had reviewed their ideas on the presentation of African societies. They also had a better understanding of the potential of museums as a resource for developing the skills of historical interpretation and enquiry and promoting global citizenship.

Barbara Thomas is this year's cluster link teacher for The Chase Cluster: The First Schools of Cranborne, Pamphill, Sixpenny Handley, Wimborne St Giles, and Witchampton Email: British Museum coursesTel: 020 7323 8511

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