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Researchers partner with museums to promote tolerant teaching of British History to schoolchildren

Building an Iron Age round house at the Iron Age Weekend, Etal, Northumberland

A new research project – with the core aim of promoting tolerance through the education of British History to schoolchildren – will lead to the creation of unique, interactive, digital artworks to be shown in museums next year.

The Co-Producing Tolerant Futures through Ancient Identities research will begin in January 2022 and is led by a University of Stirling academic and heritage expert Dr Chiara Bonacchi.

Shaking-up the way British history is taught

The research hopes to shake-up the way British history is taught to schoolchildren and presented to the public, in spaces such as museums, in order to promote tolerance.

Bonacchi will work with teachers across Scotland, England and Wales, and partner with nine major museums and heritage venues, to improve education covering the Iron Age and Roman periods.

The project is in collaboration with archaeologists Professor Richard Hingley and Dr Kate Sharpe at Durham University. It builds on previous research on the contemporary relevance of the Iron Age and Roman past of Britain.

Dr Bonacchi, who has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for the project, said: “Through previous research, we discovered that mobile and multicultural Romans are frequently contrasted to spiritual, peaceful, environmentally sustainable and indigenous, but also sometimes barbaric and rebellious, Iron Age people, through caricatures and oppositions.”

Ancient stereotypes

Fire-making at The Crannog Centre, Perthshire

The team has identified that many outdoor heritage venues in England often stage the Iron Age and Roman periods as polar opposites, or in Scotland and Wales, often via exaggerated single portrayals of one or the other period, including through hands-on experiences that reinforce stereotypes relating to ancient identities.

Dr Kate Sharpe said: “For example, Roman sites usually invite children to take part in military drills while Iron Age places generally offer activities such as building wattle and daub walls or baking bread.”

The new artworks will re-interpret and visualise social media data collected from online discussions people had on social media about Britain’s relationship with Europe.

It will guide the user through recurrent Iron Age and Roman history centred metaphors and myths that are leveraged to either exclude or bring together people in contemporary British society.

Expose and challenge myths

Dr Bonacchi said this would expose and challenge these metaphors and myths: “The research suggested that, later on in their adult life, people draw on these early impressions and understandings of the past and those they gained in school to justify antagonism towards particular groups defined on the basis of ethnicity, culture and race.

“It is, therefore, especially concerning that binary interpretations of Iron Age and Roman pasts remain widespread at heritage sites and in the classroom.”

The artwork is expected to go on display in April 2022 through a pop-up installation at three heritage venues across Britain: The Hunterian Museum (Glasgow), Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery (Carlisle), and Great North Museum: Hancock (Newcastle).

Working with these museums and six others across the UK, the research team will also create new downloadable teaching resources to support 500 heritage educators and history teachers in England, Scotland and Wales, to design and deliver education on tolerant ways of understanding ‘the other’ using the Iron Age and Roman past.

The full list of museums acting as partners in this project are:

  • Hunterian Museum
  • National Museums Scotland
  • Scottish Crannog Centre
  • Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery
  • Great North Museum: Hancock
  • Leeds Museums and Galleries
  • Butser Ancient Farm
  • Castell Henllys
  • Roman Vindolanda Fort and Museum

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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