Oral and Visual History

3: Using visual resources in the classroom

There is no doubt that the visual resources are important to the teacher of history. Research shows that children can distinguish different cultures by their 'look' long before they can use written sources for the same purpose. Moreover, they quickly learn to recognise certain behaviours as characteristic of past cultures: the Egyptians build pyramids, the Romans watch gladiator fights and so on. These learning processes are the same as those they use to understand the present. Nor can the history teacher escape the obvious fact that most children gain their initial knowledge of history from television and to a lesser extent from the cinema. Even young children come to school with a wealth of images already stored in their minds to which they refer when introduced to a new topic. As Clive Elmsley (Open University publications, 2005) writes:

We have to recognise that films... are inescapably part of our culture. They refer to what historians write about...but their intentions are different. There is little point in historians getting too steamed up about cultural products; it would be a sad society if historians possessed the right to censor and suppress. Such products are not scrupulously foot-noted, they do not have to be. And they are free to use effects that are not always available to the historian.

Whatever the virtues of Titanic (1998) as a film who can forget their first sight of the great ship ploughing through the ocean as if re-born? Or the moment when we enter the Colosseum with Maximus the gladiator for the first time? These and thousands of other instances illustrate the impact that films can have. Not that they can be used indiscriminately: their very power can unbalance a lesson, super-charging the emotional level and distracting from the process of rational enquiry that the teacher hopes to promote. Timing is very important, as is focus. Children need to know why they are being shown a particular clip and teachers should not be afraid to use the pause button!

Some rules to be observed

No extract should be much more than ten minutes long. It should not require much in the way of introduction but be self-contained as far as possible, chosen to illustrate a particular teaching point or to bring to life a particular period. There should always be contemporary materials available for the children to compare with the scenes in the film. Where the film is nearly contemporary with its subject, for example the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front, it should be treated like any other piece of evidence - interrogated for bias, completeness and so on. If it portrays a period remote in time children need to be taught to look for clues which betray its actual date (besides those which relate to the technology available).

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Many commercially produced films carry dire warnings against their use in public places, including schools, but the general consensus seems to be that this prohibition applies only when the film in question is being shown in its entirety to a large audience, mainly for entertainment or fund-raising purposes. The law governing this area in the UK is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 which recognises that the purchaser of a film enjoys the right to 'fair use' of the copy he or she has acquired: this includes the use of extracts in a classroom for specific teaching purposes. For the clearest statement on copyright relating to film and television go to the website of the UK Intellectual Property Office (www.ipo.gov.uk) and follow the links to 'Teaching in educational establishments'.

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A sub-discipline: recreating the faces of the past

As we have seen, CGI has made it possible to re-create historical environments with a realism never seen before. Computers have also enabled scientists to reconstruct the appearance of people in the past from their physical remains, along with their places of origin, medical history and - sometimes - the cause of their death. This technique - originally a branch of criminal pathology - has been applied to some very famous people, for example Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, whose partly cremated bones were found within a golden box in his tomb at Vergina in Greece. Other examples include Otzi the 'Iceman', Lindow Man, Tsar Ivan the Terrible and Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru. Children are fascinated by this kind of science, as they recognise that it represents a deeper level of truth than that often presented to them. It can alter our perception of the individuals concerned, especially when it can be shown that contemporary portraits differ.

One individual whose appearance and cause of death have attracted huge attention is Tutankhamen. His mummy has been examined by several teams of scientists over the years in the hope of determining how he died and for some years it was thought he was murdered. Following a complete CT scan however, it seems clear that the cause was gangrene, apparently the result of a broken leg. The archaeologist Howard Carter, himself a talented artist, remarked on the accuracy of the golden mask that covered the young pharaoh's face when it was first revealed. Computer-aided reconstructions confirm Carter's opinion and the close resemblance between Tutankhamen and a mysterious mummy found in a small tomb near his, thought to be the boy king's elder brother, Smenkhare (cover)

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