24th March 2000 at 00:00
BRITISH MUSEUM PHOTOPACKS: Native North America. The Human Face. British Museum Press, pound;23.99 each. Tel: 0171 323 1234.

These packs of stunning photographs look as if they are sent from heaven to help teachers carry out their work on earth.

In the context of history this is about showing pupils how to use evidence to answer important questions about the past, the pack on Native North America providing visual clues about the way of life and culture of those who lived on that continent long before the Old World colonisation began 500 years ago.

To achieve such coverage in just 30 photographs is remarkable, from the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic to the pueblo villages of the south-west, the most ancient continuously inhabited settlement on the continent and the one most vulnerable to tourist abuse.

The images of ceremonial artefacts, costumes and hunting equipment are the starting points for a series of stories of cultural survival in the rich and informative text printed on the back of each photograph.

Wilma Mankiller, of the Cherokees, tells it as it is - low educational attainment, double-digit unemployment, homes without basic amenities, and racism. A Blackfoot parfleche, a rawhide envelope used to transport food, is accompaned by a first-hand account of the last years of the buffalo. Less depressingly, the wonderful animal imagery of the north-west coast is captured in wood and in story, and can help pupils to explore the link between art and the daily experience of people in the past. This is an ideal resource for the new world study before 1900 and to support the in-depth analysis of the American West at GCSE.

The photographs of The Human Face, which range from the pharaohs to the ivory chess queen found on the island of Lewis in 1831, are not aimed at a particular curriculum subject but in the context of such widely differing subjects as art, history, English and PSHE could be used to explore such themes as deity, beauty and power and to develop confidence in interpreting the symbolism.

The text teases the pupil with the ambiguity of many portrayals; the Roman-British female (Roman or Celtic?), John the Baptist (ascetic or sensuous?), Elizabeth 1 (ageing monarch or youthful virgin?). Buddhist, Chinese and Hindu art are all drawn on to provide a rich stock of images which should promote lively discussion on how we want to be seen and how others see us.

Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE for the London Borough of Hounslow

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