Using a museum to raise global issues in history

Matt Johnson, Museum Outreach Officer, Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery reflects on the potential for using a visit to a local museum to support students' exploration of global issue

Using a museum to raise global issues in history

In June 2006 I was invited to participate in the Making Connections day course, held at The Assembly Rooms at Royal Leamington Spa. My aim was to explore the question, ‘How can a visit to a Museum and Art Gallery open up opportunities to raise global issues in history?’ I wanted to promote the idea that a museum and its collections were in an excellent position to achieve this.

Nuneaton Museum itself was created out of the vision of Alderman Edward Ferdinand Melly. In providing a museum for the town of Nuneaton, together with Riversley Park in which it stands, he was promoting civic pride, philanthropy and self-improvement. Riversley Park also promoted ideas of healthy recreation and exercise, providing a release from cramped housing and the lure of the pub. These ideals are still key when schools look at social values and perceptions in the context of global citizenship,

Many of the collections at the Museum and Art Gallery relate to local industries which have definite global connections. These include mining and other extractive industries as well as brick-making, hat-making and textile manufacture. Many of the products from these industries were exported globally and whilst many of these industries have now declined in Warwickshire some are still very strong in other countries around the world. The experiences of those who once worked in these industries and those that still do may be comparable.

Object-handling and dressing-up represent an important part of the activities we offer to schools. These activities take place in our ‘At home with the Tudors’, ‘Romans’ and ‘Discovering Victorians’ school sessions. In addition the Museum provides a range of object-handling boxes that are loaned to schools. The experience of handling artefacts allows children to engage with a range of material that inspires enquiry and curiosity. Questions such as: who used the objects?; what jobs did they do? were they rich or poor?; how do the objects compare with things we may use today? often emerge from the process and different ideas and responses are discussed.

As part of the teacher workshop I brought in objects and costumes from our school activities and object-handling boxes. I wanted each teacher present to select an object and explain what global links could be made from it.

The teacher responses below suggest how these issues can be transferred easily from the museum to the classroom, and the value of using our museum collection in this way.

  • Where does coffee come from?
  • How does our demand for coffee affect those that produce it in different parts of the world?
  • 1920’s coffee jar
  • Coffee was expensive 70 years ago but is relatively cheap in Britain today. What has been the impact of this change?
  • What are the positive and negative issues about importing goods?
  • The idea of personal hygiene in the past. Was it as important in Victorian times as today?
  • How is the soap made?  A sample of carbolic soap
  • What are the environmental issues about the production and use of soap?
  • Was it possible in the past for everyone to have access to clean water? What are the issues about clean water access globally today?

All of these suggestions clearly demonstrate that it is possible to make global connections starting with the most simple of museum objects.

To conclude, working with Tide~ and delivering an element of the Making Connections workshop was a useful demonstration in how museum collections can be utilised in a much wider sense to include these global issues. I hope that teachers will see the value of looking closely at the varied services their local museum can offer and will recognise that museums can help them to fulfil their curriculum needs.

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