Time travel with a teacher in a toga

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Chris Fautley has his stylus at the ready for a trip back 1,700 years to the capital, when oysters were standard fare and mosaics were found on all the best floors in town.

The place: Londinium, a Roman merchant's villa. The year: AD298. The host: Martia Matina, servant. The guests: Year 3 pupils from Blue Gate Fields junior school, in Shadwell. The scene is set in the Roman gallery of the Museum of London for a re-enactor to rekindle the day-to-day life of 1,700 years ago.

If Martia seems like a long lost friend, it is because she quickly builds up a rapport with her audience. Within minutes a lively double-act develops between actress and children. Her script is carefully thought out, but it is the subtle degree of spontaneity that really entices children to interact and question. "You have dropped your stylus!" observes Martia when a pencil rattles to the ground. It's audience participation writ large.

"How did you get to Londinium?" "By train."

"A train of horses! You must be very important."

A discussion about home decor follows. "Do you have painted walls?" asks Martia.

"We have wallpaper."

"What is wallpaper? Is it papyrus?" It is a nice introduction to how the Romans applied paint and plaster, and laid floors. The mosaic floor upon which she stands was actually found close to the museum.

We learn about Roman food: oysters are ten-a-penny in Londinium, poor person's fare.

Linda Frances, a teacher at the school, has brought the group as part of the literacy hour. She is impressed by the way they really enter into the spirit of the occasion. However, it is something of a toe-in-the-water exercise since English is the second language for all of them.

The school's head teacher, Kath Halpenny, is a "firm believer in making visits and experiencing things," says Ms Frances. "If we can't bring real life into school, then we go out and get it."

The Museum of London's principal magnetism lies in its depiction of typically ordinary life through the ages. To this effect, it is split into time zones: Prehistoric, Roman, Saxon, Medieval and so on. The breadth of exhibits is enormous - from Roman hairclips to the Lord Mayor's carriage - so it is impossible to cover everything in one day. An angled visit is far better - either a historical period or, even better, selectively using the galleries to develop themes.

Combining a gallery with an object-handling session or re-enactor is another excellent approach. An hour flies by in the Roman gallery with its reconstructions of a kitchen, cutler's stall, carpenter's workshop, first-century builder's yard and the living room of a craft worker.

The star exhibit is the Spitalfields Roman - the headline-making skeleton of a young woman whose coffin was discovered in April this year.

Much of the museum's collection is, of necessity, behind glass. This, coupled with a tendency to rely on printed captions and a lack of buttons to press and gadgets to try, means that a visit can feel rather dated. What is needed is a little more inter-activity, like quizzes or touch-screens to fully stimulate inquiring young minds.

Balanced against this, however, is a policy of free admission for pre-booked school parties and four resource packs on the Tudor, Roman, Victorian and 20th-century London.

Museum of London, London Wall London, EC2Y 5HN. Tel: 0171 6000 3699http:www.museum-london.org.uk.Free admission to schools during term time if booked in advance. Gallery Actors: pound;21 per group

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