For my course on Social Foundations in the ancient world, I decided to take my class to the British Museum. I’m really keen to get students thinking about all kinds of sources, so I wanted to introduce them to objects pretty early on.
Before the class, I set a reading on the decolonisation of the British Museum. I wanted the students to understand where the objects might have come from and the circumstances of their arrival, especially the global ones I’d be asking them to find.
I came up with a task which had various functions. I have paired my students to give class presentations, and so they were to go round the museum in their pairs. I hoped they would support each other with the navigation of the museum, and have good conversations about which objects to choose. So, one key element of this task was teamwork in their pairs. Before the class, I told students to come with a phone/camera and something to make notes with.
The task I set was to select objects from the different geographical areas that we would be studying as well as from the two monotheistic faiths we’ll be covering towards the end of term. They had to select pieces that they thought would fit into one or more of the key themes of the course. These are identity, life after death and history of medicine.
As this was the first time I’d attempted this kind of task, my expectations of them finding objects to tick all seven boxes weren’t too high, but the key thing was for them to find two objects that resonated them for a reflective writing piece. This task will get the students to introduce two objects from the museum and write about why they chose them, and how they connect to the key theme(s) they’ve picked.
I reminded the students of their group pairings and we went into the museum. I encouraged them to pick up maps, and then told them where I’d be if they needed to come and ask a question. I explained that I expected them to come and find me by a certain time to show me what they found. I gave them just over an hour to complete the task, the usual time period of our class.
I sat and waited for the students to come and approach me. I saw a few walk by and checked in with how they were getting on. I deliberately sat in a main thoroughfare so it was likely they’d have to go by me at least once on their travels through the museum.
As the time I’d suggested drew closer, the students started turning up in their pairs. One pair had got separated, but had managed to find each other again. They were quite keen to share phone numbers etc. so were able to contact each other no problem. I was really pleased with how enthused they had been by the collections. One pair spent so long in one section and was so keen that they planned to go back the following day by themselves!
When the pairs came to check in, I asked them about the objects they’d chosen for their task, and if they’d managed to find things for all the areas I’d suggested on the handout. Most of the geographical areas had good coverage from all the students, but a couple were less easy and others not found at all. I was pretty impressed with the ground that they’d covered and how they had been thinking deeply about the objects they’d seen in terms of the class themes. I asked each student if they’d picked their two objects yet, and most had, although others were still to decide. They’d all taken lots of photos, both of objects and the accompanying information, which was really pleasing to see.
Next time, I think I’ll include a slightly shorter list of things for the students to find, but otherwise I don’t think I’ll modify this exercise much. I think my relatively hands off approach was successful. At this stage, I wanted the students to experience the objects for themselves and not feel they had to impress anyone while they were going around and selecting their objects.