History Around Us


The word 'museum' means a place dedicated to the Muses. The Muses were minor goddesses who represented those fields of human activity which the Ancient Greeks thought were necessary to a cultured life, such as philosophy, fine art, history, poetry, drama, and music. In Greek and Roman times objects of beauty, historic importance or antiquity were generally displayed in temples, public places or private houses. Amongst the most famous were the treasures taken from Jerusalem at the end of the Jewish revolt of AD 70 which were put on show in the Temple of Peace at Rome. However, these were spoils of war not historical exhibits in a modern sense. The Romans had no use for a history which was dead and gone.

Similarly, in the Middle Ages there was no interest in the past for its own sake. Old buildings could be pulled down or reconstructed without any regard for their intrinsic value. But there was great interest in relics - the physical remains of saints as well as objects associated with them. Relics were 'charged' with sanctity and their physical presence made a place holy, attracting pilgrims and giving the host community the resources to maintain itself and expand.

In the Renaissance period, the possession of objects and paintings became one of the most important ways of demonstrating status and power, and kings such as Charles I of England built up magnificent collections. Normally these were used to adorn the walls of residences and palaces but by the 18th Century it had become possible to distinguish between the personal property of the monarch and property belonging to the crown as an institution. This was the origin of the British Museum, created when a large private collection was left to the state on the condition that ordinary people could have access to it.

Museums in the 19th Century

Like schools, hospitals and prisons, not to mention government itself, museums shared in the rise of professionalism which was characteristic of the 19th Century. Curators and administrators were properly trained, new buildings were provided, and new methods of display and conservation developed. Meanwhile museums were appearing in other European capitals as an aspect of the nationalism which the old elites had adopted as a way of maintaining their power. How were these museums to be filled ? The story of archaeology in the late 19th Century is like 'the scramble for Africa' with rival museums and learned societies competing to dig the most famous sites in order to add to the splendour of their collections.

Illustration: Torquay Museum

Torquay Museum

A typical 19th century museum. Founded in 1844 to house the prehistoric objects found in Kents Cavern nearby and still owned by a private society, it has recently been refurbished with the aid of a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

By the beginning of the 20th Century no self-respecting town or city could be without its museum. Many of the objects in these museums came from the new colonies overseas - the loot of empire one might call it. Although curators often took a patronising approach to the cultures represented (sometimes recently conquered and therefore inferior) these new collections did play a part in broadening the minds of educated Europeans. The foundations of our modern multi-cultural society were often laid in the hall of the local museum.

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New museums

It was not until after the Second World War (perhaps because of the widespread destruction this had caused) that a new wave of interest in museums developed. It took two main directions - specialist museums and local history museums. The first type, such as the Railway Museum in York or the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, tended to focus upon aspects of the Industrial Revolution, especially technologies which were fast disappearing. There were also military museums such as the Imperial War Museum and the Museum of Naval Flying at Yeovilton as well as museums celebrating the rise of the media industry. Indeed, almost every trade or occupation now has its own museum except education...

The second type of museum was on a much smaller scale, often the result of a single enthusiast or group of enthusiasts and generally started without any public funding at all. Here again there would generally be a feeling that old ways of life were being lost and familiar landmarks were being demolished. What do you find in these museums? Seaton Museum near Axminster is a typical example. Its most important exhibits are a large collection of Victorian photographs but it has material from a Roman building in the town, relics of occupations such as farming and fishing, and lots of Victorian household items. It exists to illustrate the town as it was and to show how things were done differently in the past. It also has a curator who knows almost all there is to know about Seaton and many enthusiastic older volunteers who have a wealth of memories between them. Little by little it is setting its displays in order but it does not know very much about the needs of schools nor does it have facilities for the reception of school parties.

Getting the most out of a museum like Seaton requires a teacher to do a number of things:

  • a) ensure that his or her knowledge of the locality is sufficient to explain the way it has developed to children
  • b) know the museum collection well enough to sort out the 'wood from the trees'
  • c) have resources/information on hand to help children understand the context in which an object was used
  • d) build up a relationship of trust with the curator and volunteers so objects can be borrowed or handled
  • e) prepare well for a visit and have activities ready for follow up in the classroom
  • f) have clear learning objectives relating to the curriculum as a whole
  • g) understand the needs of other users of the museum.

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Museums with education officers

Almost all larger museums have an education or access officer whose job it is to liaise with schools and very often teach sessions. A good example of this is Tiverton Museum where the education officer not only runs active learning sessions for visiting school groups but has also set up a resource web-site. Schools can borrow handling collections and teachers can make free preliminary visits. A subscription scheme enables schools that belong to use the loan service and make as many visits to the museum during the year as they wish.

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Labels can be a problem! The audience for a big public museum represents a very wide spectrum of knowledge and interest: from the casual tourist to the academic expert; from infants in pushchairs to the long retired. Until quite recently labels were almost always written for a specialist audience, frequently other curators. Only in the last thirty years have museums begun to distinguish between groups of visitors. The pioneer was the Geology Museum in South Kensington whose Story of the Earth exhibition was the first 'interactive' display as well as the first one to include film sequences. This was followed up by the neighbouring Natural History Museum whose Hall of Human Biology contains very few actual objects at all and is unashamedly theatrical. Another stage was marked by the Jorvik exhibition in York where visitors were taken on a trip through time and through a reconstruction of Viking York before being shown the finds on which the reconstruction was based. All these strategies assume a visitor who is intelligent but ignorant. Captions are often graded, with 'headlines', 'outline' explanations and full descriptions arranged in diminishing sizes of print. You might call this the 'Rupert Bear' approach, after the famous annuals which were arranged in the same way. It's also a layout used by the editors of tabloid newspapers and can be the basis for designing worksheets.

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Museum in the classroom

Making a museum in the classroom is a long established idea. Children can be relied upon to produce a great variety of objects, some of them of real significance. However, the beauty of the idea is that almost any object will do (museum store rooms are filled with the 'rubbish' of past ages). A new twist on the same exercise is to establish a museum of the 21st Century. Again, even a trivial item like a biro or pencil case, crisp bag or discarded trainer, wil serve to represent some aspect of modern life we all take for granted. Money makes a very good choice as it also carries 'messages' eg the reigning monarch, national symbols etc. In this case the label will not only have to explain what the object is made of and what the symbols on it mean, it will have to explain how money was used as a medium of exchange - a thing worthless in itself but having an agreed value. And what would the coin on display buy?

The language value of this exercise is obvious but it will also help children to think of society as a multitude of interlocking procedures, some significant, some not. If they are then confronted by an actual museum they will a) be able to see what it isn't showing and b) criticise its displays as the valid representation of a society. They will be able to think about the ideas which it would be very difficult for any museum to display and whether the modern world with its archives of film and television will be easier to explain to a future audience than past societies. Which films or TV programmes would they select as significant?

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Making labels for the museum of the 21st Century

Some questions to consider:

  • a) Is the object being presented as unique, one of a type, or representative of a system'?
  • b) What is the precise name of the object?
  • c) What further description is necessary? For example: what is the object made of, what do any symbols mean, where was the object found?
  • d) What is the date of the object? What evidence of date is there?
  • e) Is the object part of a larger one? If so, what did the complete object look like? What was it for?
  • f) What aspect of society does the object represent?
  • g) Who might have used it?

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