Recreating the archive experience

As part of my Masters work I spent most of the afternoon yesterday at Bristol University Special Collections looking through the John Pinney archives. The Pinney Papers include a large selection of Pinney’s letters and his records from his sugar plantation on Nevis, including details of his slaves and instructions of how to treat them. All these papers date from the latter half of the 18th century so are roughly 250 years old. This was a proper history geek treat and the first time I had been in an archive for a very long time doing ‘real history’, painstakingly picking through evidence to find out about the past.

Lots of the work I did will form part of my scheme of work on the Transatlantic Slave Trade (more on that to follow) but the experience highlighted things I would like to change about the way I teach history.

  1. How can you convey what ‘real history’ (or active history or whatever you may want to call it) is to kids?
  2. How can we replicate the archive experience in the classroom? (as surely this is an engaging way of getting kids on board and meeting the point above!)

Last year Michael Riley (Head of the SHP) described how he had done the latter in a primary classroom by giving kids white gloves and pencils and boxes of replica material and giving them a chance to lead an historical enquiry. This sounds neat, but would probably only work with young students, as surely this role play would not go down well with older students? For my own lessons I have planned an activity where students have to piece together the story of Pero’s life (Pinney’s personal slave) whereby they are given photographs of Pinney’s letters which mention Pero and they must find the facts and make the inferences to connect them. I hope that using these primary sources will give them some idea of what it is like to write ‘real history’ and looking at Pinney’s actual handwriting on a document that is over 250 years old might grab their attention, but who knows as kids respond to things very differently to me!

However, this annoyingly (for me), still does not replicate the full archive experience, the smell of the place, the feel of the books. Probably the only way to do this is to actually take the kids to the archive and then you run into the problem of archivists and them letting kids loose on their material!

If anyone has had experience with anything of this sort, please comment below, I would love to share ideas.

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3 Responses to Recreating the archive experience

  1. foodwinehols says:

    Why don’t you take a couple of students to experience the archive and let the other students interview them?

  2. Zoe Camplin says:

    Nothing very useful to add Rich (maternity leave brain!) but this takes me back to doing my Masters and handling medieval mss at the British Library – I absolutely loved it. And thinking about it, that was when I first felt I was really doing a Historian’s work for myself which is a pretty sad indictment considering I’d already done a History degree – I always felt all I did there was arbitrate between existing research materials rather than carry out anything original myself…. If I cone up with an answer tintype in the classroom I’ll let you know! Good luck with the masters, great blog!

  3. Sometimes think we deny students the joy – and travails – of the History treasure hunt by providing too many clues and shortening the discovery process. There has to be a way to take away the drudgery of archive mining – by using technology – without losing the thrill of working with sources.

    Think my daily blog ( tweet tasters @somme95 – of one officer’s diaries and letters from the Somme battlefield are potentially a source of material that teachers might find interesting to use, as it is slowly revealing a narrative about the battle’s preparations, beginnings and aftermath…. for some days will be producing ‘back-up’ material to support classroom use.

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