Last month, ARA’s Archives for Learning and Education Section (ALES) hosted an event at London Irish Centre, on the topic of ‘Archives and Learning for All: Engaging Diverse Communities’. As I have recently been running some learning activities, working with a school group and running creative workshops taking collections as inspiration, I thought it would be useful to hear about some examples of current best practice in engaging a variety of audiences with archives in an educational setting.
The day began with a useful presentation by Vicky Price of UCL Special Collections explaining how a new outreach programme was developed at UCL. Vicky was full of brilliant tips, recommending looking to your organisation and department’s strategic vision and aims as a starting point, to identify what exactly the programme needs to achieve, as well as identifying your target audiences and their learning requirements. This helps to develop a clear strategy for your outreach programme and to advocate for and evidence the value of your work to senior management.
Jennifer Simpson of University of the Third Age then offered some insight into how U3A groups use archives and how archivists can best support their learning. Jennifer discussed a number of interesting heritage related projects U3A have worked on recently, including participation in Essex Record Office’s oral history listening bench project, and particularly stressed the value of giving people the freedom to use and interpret collections in their own way – from artistic work, to academic essays and even knitting!
London Metropolitan Archives‘ Symeon Ververidis discussed the importance of archives for identity-building and how LMA have harnessed this to engage under-represented groups in London with their archives. Symeon explained that LMA’s key target audience for engagement is the people who do not yet know the archive exists. At LMA, they have worked to increase representation in their collections, which in turn has attracted new audiences to their learning and education activities.
The afternoon session kicked off with Caroline Bunce of the Marks & Spencer Company Archive detailing their work with home education groups, adapting the usual school sessions to suit a different way of learning. Caroline explained how home education learners differ from school students: they are used to self-directing their learning sessions, focusing on subjects that interest them and taking breaks whenever they like; they do not respond to typical classroom environments and ‘school language’, do not like to sit still for long and are used to being addressed as an individual, rather than as a whole class; and they are used to learning in mixed age groups, rather than being separated by key stage. The positive outcomes of this work for the archive were the opportunity to engage a whole new audience, building new skills for staff, and being able to use different parts of the collection that are usually overlooked for learning sessions, as they do not fit with the curriculum.
Helen Green of Girlguiding Norfolk and Caroline Pantling of Scouts UK delivered two related presentations looking at how their archives have been used to educate Guides and Scouts about the heritage of their organisations and to teach them useful skills as part of the wider Girlguiding and Scout programmes – from empathy skills to animation. They also awarded everyone in the audience with their very own Archive Resource Centre badges!
Starting their presentation by handing out quick creative activities as an example of their work, Penny Allen and Elizabeth Semper O’Keefe of The Courtyard Hereford offered some great advice on working with care home residents. Making the crucial point that people with dementia do not stop learning, they just may not remember it afterwards, they outlined how they have created meaningful learning experiences through their house history project. Penny and Elizabeth explained that they decided to focus on the history of the care home buildings that participants lived in, as this is an area of heritage that does not require participants to use their own memories, but they could use their physical space as a point of reference. The project engaged care home residents in researching this heritage and working creatively to produce a project book that they could each keep a copy of.
The final presentation, delivered by Julie Melrose of Islington Local History Centre, provided some useful advice on managing an inter-generational project. Julie explained there was a need to work flexibly to balance the conflicting timetables and lifestyles of university students and older people in the local area, for example recording oral history interviews in people’s homes if they were unable to travel to the History Centre.
The day offered insight into a huge range of learning experiences in archives, working with audiences that are often overlooked in creative and engaging ways. I went home full of ideas for future projects and practical tips. Thank you to ALES for organising such a useful and enjoyable day!
Alicia Chilcott, Digitisation Coordinator, Conway Hall and Publicity Officer, ARA Section for New Professionals