Can you teach through the medium of Stuff?

If I were unbearably cynical, I would suggest that the Teaching History with 100 Objects project was an attempt to co-opt a major national institution into supporting a particular cast of goverment education policy, but the People’s Republic is a place of wide-eyed, dewy-cheeked innocence, as you know, so we will confine ourselves to commenting on whether it’s a good idea or not. Pfft.

Maybe it’s an idea that ought to delight anyone trained as both a historian and an archaeologist – history told through Stuff and Things. The question is, should you do that? It’s not so much that the selections are – this is inevitable – screaming with omissions. It’s that I’m not sure I believe in the iconic power of objects to stand for history. Or even archaeology, come to that. The real fun in archaeology isn’t goggling at individual objects, it’s goggling at graphs of classes of objects and trying to figure out what their number, distribution and changing form tell us. It’s true that whenever I’m by the British Museum and have a moment I have a little commune with the Sutton Hoo helmet, but that’s because I spent a term learning about the burial, the society, the mysterious nature of the spearholder and the provenance of the spoons. And the gold enamelled shoulder clasps (seriously, good grief) probably look far more amazing to me than you (yes, even you, howsobeit that you are clearly an intelligent, discerning and highly sophisticated reader, and that colour really suits you, by the way) because I looked at so many diagrams of post-holes and excavation reports that term and I have a crude idea of how much archaeology is Yet More Bloody Potsherds and then, suddenly, woosh, garnet cloisonné work. Without all the background knowledge and context Sutton Hoo is basically one big glass case of insurance headache. No wonder so many children wander round museums looking underwhelmed. You gotta wanna see it.

Teaching history is surely about teaching ideas and patterns, as with any humanities subject. If that doesn’t float your longboat, then as with any subject at all, no hard feelings. But it seems a strange endeavour to try to inspire children to learn about ideas by giving them objects instead. Objects are not easier than ideas. They do not provide better access to knowledge, but different access. The notion that learning history is done by starting from a particular physical object as “inspiration” and working outwards to the patterns and ideas bit is actually pretty complex, and calls for some kind of materialist/semiological defence which I dearly hope the DfE SpAds are too busy to construct. The objects are doing the job of icons here, representing a whole bunch of epistemological categories in an intellectual enterprise that is not really “about” physical objects at all. It’s  bordering on the mystical, though I suppose education policy is one of those areas where we seem to think a bit of mysticism is appropriate – inspiring minds, unlocking potential, all those things.

I also think it forms more of a departure than the schools minister Nick Gibb thinks from the strait-laced chronological curriculum laid down by Michael Gove which, gleefully piss-rip-worthy though it was, did enshrine a hazy version of the premise that in order to understand patterns you need to start with a lot of data. This project could be taken to advocate starting with one bit of data, a physical bit. I’m not sure whether that’s right or wrong, I just think it’s different. I guess a lot lies with the teaching, but that’s always the case, and incidentally the reason why (as ever) I wonder if there’s any earthly point in governments specifying curriculums to this level of detail in the first place.


  1. “I wonder if there’s any earthly point in governments specifying curriculums to this level of detail in the first place.” Well, that precisely is it. Away with all this Gaullist nonsense (am I right in dimly recalling Keith Joseph to be the ultimate misbegetter of this awful politicianisation of the curriculum?) and let the teaching profession, with appropriate kicks up the bum from academia and parents, decide what and how to teach. FFS, as the cool kids say.

    Delighted to see the Republic has been restored by the way. All hail, Imperatrix Mortimer Augusta!

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