Marcus Belben has worked on the project 'A shared history, a shared future' for Birmingham Library Services in 2007, and is also an editor of 'the Liberty box'. Before that he was Birmingham City Archives Creative Learning Officer.  Marcus shares experiences of a project ‘A Shared History, a Shared Future’ which aims to explore issues of slavery in the last 200 years with schools, youth and community groups in Birmingham.  This project illustrates the potential for Archive sources to be used as a stimulus to young people’s learning.  He also reflects from this experience about the dilemmas involved and the proposal to create a ‘Liberty Box’ as an addition to the Archive collection.

During one of the last workshops of ‘A shared history, a shared future’, one of the participants asked me, “Can I do it in my own language?”

This comment led to a frenetic period of highly creative work by the small group of ten year old children I was supporting.  We were recording quotes, examples of what ‘slaves’ in a current day context might be making or doing that touches them.  Everyone came up with new ideas, not just in their own languages, but the permission to explore for themselves seemed to open up new possibilities for all the group.

The minority in the group who could only speak English fluently experimented with French, or talked to their friends to learn phrases from them.  All of the group queued up to record their contribution, and had to be persuaded to return to join the rest of their class again.

The comment left me reflecting on how to motivate a group to learn and provide effective personalised learning opportunities.

Archives are truly inspirational, and a natural partner for creative work.  Birmingham City Archives strives to represent the people who live and have lived in Birmingham.  The depth and volume of material may at first be awesome, but if we provide students with the freedom to explore, and we allow the material to speak for itself, it offers a rich teaching resource.  The Archives relates to people in Birmingham, opening up new discoveries and new understandings of our city and ourselves.  Working with Archives is exciting, engaging, personalised and relevant.

For 'a shared history, a shared future' most of the groups started by either a visit to the archives, or archive material being brought to the groups. During every part of the project, ideas came from the groups themselves, and started with an enquiry into who they were and what they thought. With the support of staff throughout the library service, we were able to find a vast selection of material for participants to find their own issues of interest and direct their own project.

As the project developed so the need for regular review and appraisal became clear, to ensure that control of the project rested firmly in the hands of the participants. A school class of ten year olds may not be used to directing their learning in schools - they may lack the confidence, experience and skills to present their ideas to their peers and other adults. Personalised learning is more than working with material and media to reflect the needs and choices of the participants. It's about whole ownership by them, which may require a redressing of balance.

We used our first workshop as a means of gauging the interests and needs of the group.  We used filming and asked participants to record what they were interested in.  We experimented with different approaches and media, using games, dance, drama, all directed at finding out more about ourselves.  We used the archive material to see what interested the group and individuals in the group, what they were drawn to and what they wanted to find out more about.

We encouraged groups to keep diaries using video, sound clips or written word, or any media they liked.  We used wall space dedicated to a project, to take control of the physical space of the project, and to remind everyone of the history and direction of the project.  Most important was to ensure time early on, within each workshop, and at the beginning and end to review, reflect, and sometimes swap roles, quite literally.  Placing children in the role of ‘teacher’ opens up an interesting perspective on what the children thought of the artists, the teachers, the school and project, and let them poke fun at us.  The review also builds the confidence of the group to present to each other, experiment with their ideas, and practice positive and creative criticism.

For our part placing ourselves clearly as an equal, rather than a leader, opens the possibilities of learning and developing with the group.  Understandably there are practical difficulties for teachers in adult and youth groups where many languages are spoken.  Working ‘in your own language’ recognises and celebrates the skills and experiences of everyone in the group, rather than imposing a learning experience that will fail many.

Adding to the archives .. reflections on the proposal to develop ‘a Liberty Box’

Throughout 2007 there have been many projects, to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trading act, and almost as many education packs.  Birmingham Library services intended to run its own project, funded by The Heritage Lottery to produce its own resources.  Our first task was to describe the project, to say what we were doing and what we hoped to achieve.  The correct wording seemed an important consideration, but looking at other projects there was no consensus about whether we were celebrating or commemorating the bicentenary.

To celebrate is a positive response, looking at the achievements of abolitionists, and also to reclaim and re-appropriate identity through slavery.  However the transatlantic slave trade led to 10 to 60 million people transported in perhaps the biggest forced migration in history.  Millions more died in the process, and nations across Africa were shattered, the effects to last for centuries after.  Is it right to celebrate the end of such a gross injustice?

To commemorate is a call to remembrance, keeping alive the memory of someone or something.  To commemorate the bicentenary is a recognition of the misery of those who suffered, but it also implies that the suffering has ended, that things are different.  Is it right to commemorate the bicentenary when there are more slaves now than ever?  When the human trafficking which feeds slavery is increasing?

To mark the bicentenary may seem like a sensible means to avoid misunderstandings, but it seems weak to ‘mark’ such a momentous event as the passing of the slave trade act.  The choice of wording may seem arbitrary, but care is needed when attempting to explore the still sensitive issue of slavery.  At the heart of the matter is our understanding of what slavery is, and what it means to us.  For some it is the cold-hearted by-product of our capitalist society, the ultimate commodity.  For others it is the root of racism and elitism.  Some see slavery as the breakdown of law and order – an injustice in need of redress.

Throughout ‘A shared history, a shared future’, we intended to reflect the diverse opinions and issues raised in exploring slavery.  We wanted to use our resources throughout Birmingham City Archives, Birmingham Library Services and elsewhere to support the work around issues of slavery many people in Birmingham wanted, and to promote the issues of slavery through projects run in schools, youth and community groups.

In Birmingham in 2007 our project was one of many projects examining slavery, each representing their own understanding of what slavery is and what it means.  As the project developed it became clear that the best means of leaving a lasting legacy within the Library Service was not just to represent our project, but to record the many projects and resources already available and newly created throughout 2007.

March for JusticeJoseph E Sturge relative of the original Birmingham anti-slavery campaigner, Joseph Sturge, leads the ‘March for Justice

The Liberty Box is a collection of many of the projects, events and exhibitions across the West Midlands exploring slavery as we see it.  It is part of a continuing campaign by Birmingham Library Service to represent important issues, events and the people involved, by the people, through our collections, freely available to all.

The Liberty Box is a snap shot of our attitudes and opinions around issues related to slavery in 2007, and a record of what we did to raise awareness, change attitudes, and change the world. To Celebrate, Commemorate and Educate.

Web Links:

Teaching and learning about the slave trade