At Museum of London 'Real' history lives

By , Education editor of The Christian Science Monitor

This is, by far, one of the most exciting museums in the world. Of course, the subject both of its affection and its displays is one of the most exciting cities of the world -- long a center for culture, commerce, and conviviality.

The Museum of London and the City of London are intertwined in a delightful architectural manner. As one courses around the areas depicting Roman London, there are some oddly placed windows exposing to view the ruins of an old wall.

And slanting off the roof line are the panels explaining that this is indeed a section of the Roman wall that once encircled the city. If there were no education division, no trained lecturers, no concerned teachers, and no provocative work sheets, this display alone would go far to making history "real" to the most casual of students.

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But there's more, much more, as one strolls up and down ramps and around courtyards tracing, if he goes in order, the history of London from prehistoric times (how can you know what happened 250,000 years ago?) to the 20th century.

Vicky Woolland, a member of the education staff, kindly explained what they do for the 600 to 700 school groups that come eacy year. And again, as in talks I had with other museum education staffs, Mrs. Woolland emphasized that they must follow the lead of the teachers -- and that this lead is very thin at times. Too thin for much more than an introduction to what makes a museum.

The museum architects designed space for school groups with two classrooms connected by a storage area for the "hands on" pieces history. Each item is a "conversation piece," and each has enough of a place in the history of London to make the most indifferent student come alive for a time at least.

Yet, I must emphasize what Mrs. Woolland said in so many careful ways -- the success of a visit to the Museum of London starts with the teachers in the schools.

The museum staff prefers to work with some specific project; with those who have had some preparatory work; who are ready to ask questions about the displays, about the materials, and about how one piece fits with another.

For example, the staff is prepared to give a slide talk and allow students to handle original materials about the London known to Chaucer, or to Shakespeare, or to Dickens, etc.

The slide showings and sharing of materials, including use of maps, old prints, and manuscripts, take place first in a classroom. After that the students go with the lecturer and the teacher to relevant display areas in the museum galleries.

If Dickens is the featured Londoner, the museum staff would expect the students to have read some Dickens and to have already begun looking for signs of Dickens both in today's buildings and in available prints, drawings, maps, and the like.

Each student who comes is given a work sheet; this often contains a moderate bit of information, requiring the student to find information from a museum display and to draw something from the collection.Mrs. Woolland said the majority of schoolchildren are between the ages of 9 and 12, and hence much of the material worked out has been done for that age group, although the museum will take children as young as 5 and have an adult education group as well.

A "Merchants" work sheet states: "The city of London became rich through trade. Wool, and later cloth, were the main exports. By the end of the 15th century over a million yards of cloth was sent from London to Europe every year."

The students are then asked to "draw a tool used in the wool trade" and to tell "what it was used for." I watched some youngsters doing this and was delighted to see a group of friends decide that each one would draw a different tool.

I didn't need to be told that the most favorite display of all -- even more than the Lord Mayor's splended coach -- is the re-enactment of the fire of London. That's 1666 for those of you who don't know, and Mrs. Woolland assured me that most schoolchildren think of London's history as before and after the fire and not as Roman, Saxon, Tudor, Georgian, etc.

The museum's talking display of this event is very imaginative and a repeater for the schoolchildren who come.

But the Museum of London is also set up to deal with the serious scholar, not just with those on a school "outing." It will suggest readings, explain more than display cards can say, probe its own library, and suggest original materials in other libraries and museums.

London lives in this mu seum, whether in the day of Queen Victoria or Elizabeth II.

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