Get Stuffed was a great title for a taxidermy exhibition I saw at a regional museum in New Zealand years ago, and I’ve still got the poster somewhere, but generally I find these preserved animals slightly unnerving with their beady glass eyes and forever curious expressions. Luckily they don’t feature in archive collections – or so I thought. A couple of weeks ago I walked down an entire shelf-length of archived birds, turtles, rodents, even a baby seal; part of the impressive archive store of a (nameless) Scottish local authority.
I was visiting as part of SCA’s Education Coaching programme, where we offer up to three days of on-site one-to-one coaching/training/mentoring/planning -call it what you will- towards developing an archive service’s education and outreach programme. In this particular archive store we were looking for items of interest for the “tour” part of a planned school visit. We decided against the dead animals but we did place a particularly impressive red fox who was posed for eternity atop a metal dustbin, its paw lifting the lid, at the far end of one of the electric moving shelves. The fox would make a surprise cameo appearance as the shelves opened and children peered down the rows of neatly arranged but visually disappointing plain grey boxes.
The Coaching Programme has given me lots of moments like this in the past 18 months since we started it. In Dundee I worked with archivists on a school project based around the town’s Baxter Park, bringing to life characters from the city’s past to tell stories about their lives and fortunes, and in the Outer Hebrides we looked at sensitive and appropriate ways to tell school children about the experiences of their ancestors whose lives had been devastated by the sinking of the Iolaire on New Year’s Day 1919. With archive services hard-pressed financially and pulled in many directions at once it’s often difficult to justify spending precious time thinking up school resources and interesting activities for community groups. The Coaching Programme has provided that justification for archivists to clear the timetable and focus on the collections, devising imaginative, fun and informative activities that showcase the archive service and offer access to new groups.
And a short concentrated input can have long term benefits. In Perth last year I helped with putting together a lesson pack for S3 students about a local soldier’s wartime letters. The archivist wanted the students to connect emotionally with the young man’s experience so we wove some drama activities into the unit of six lessons. Now I’m no archives expert – we’re all agreed on that – and the archivist isn’t a drama expert, but between us we were able to move outside our comfort zones to create an archives-based education resource with real impact. I was back there a month ago to help deliver the first drama lesson with a class, and next time the archivist will be confident to do this herself. Feedback from the school and students has been very positive. One teacher commented:
The major success of the resource for my class was that it engaged pupils who on occasion find it difficult to be fully engaged. Pupils who prior to the visit to the Library would rather keep their thoughts/ideas to themselves or share them one-to one, were reading the letters aloud on the visit. A good proportion of the boys spoke favourably about the still-image/drama component in Unit 1.
One benefit that cannot be overlooked .. is that the resource educated the pupils about what archives are.
The long term benefit of that short time spent building this resource is that Perth and Kinross’s archive staff have new skills and confidence in working with schools, a higher profile in the community and a unit of archives-based history and drama work that will be used by local schools for years to come.
You may remember that I hinted at an upcoming training course in my last blog post. Come on, keep up. That happened a couple of weeks ago in the grand environs of the Dome of New Register House in Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful setting, a heady mixture of Gringotts Bank and Borges’ Library of Babel, in which a lively and diverse group of archivists, historians and heritage officers learned about creating curricular resources from archive records. The best bit for most, aside from getting stuffed on a tasty lunch from the in-house catering staff, was the chance to work together on actually creating some learning materials together. Contacts were exchanged and expertise shared. It raised the suggestion that we could offer such opportunities more often; a chance to meet colleagues and collaborate on education and outreach ideas together. A half-day might suffice, coffee and cake would be a must, and we might offer a subject focus or a quickfire learning of new skills. Drop me an e-mail to let me know what you think.
If your appetite is for something more, remember our Coaching Programme and consider applying when we offer it again in the new year. A taxidermy fox isn’t essential, though it helps.