Learning to Remember "Difficult" Histories: School Fieldtrips to Museums in England That Represent Transatlantic Slavery

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM
Room 205 (Hynes Convention Center)
Nikki Spalding , International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, United Kingdom
Although transatlantic slavery has been taught by some schools in Britain since at least the 1980s, it wasn’t until September 2008 that the slave trade became a compulsory part of the secondary history curriculum. This paper argues that if “history textbooks are the vehicles of national memory”, then it follows that government sponsored education initiatives – such as those delivered by museums – should also be considered as “weapons of mass-instruction” (Assmann, 2008). In a climate where the educational value of museums and heritage is gaining support, frameworks that are currently used to theorise traditional educational media must be adapted to analyse the school field-trip.
Survey, observation and interview data relating to the learning experiences of school pupils (age 11-14) at the International Slavery Museum (Liverpool) and Wilberforce House (Hull) is presented throughout this paper. Particular focus is given to the Understanding Slavery initiative, which, since 2003, has produced handling sessions, loan boxes, print and digital resources and on-site sessions for schools. This paper investigates whether, within the context of these sessions, transatlantic slavery is communicated as ‘unique’, or whether it is perceived by museum learning facilitators, teachers and pupils in more banal terms. It is suggested that it is regarded as being distinct (due in part to its pervasive legacy), yet is simultaneously treated as a conventional history topic through which the ‘universal’ themes and skills of the citizenship curriculum can be taught in order to develop “active global citizens” (QCA: 2007).

In response to the appeal from Seixas for a reconceptualisation of history education and its role in influencing how we study ‘historical consciousness’ (2004), this paper offers insights into the relationship between curriculum development, commemoration and the historiography of slavery, through a study of the production and consumption of history education practice that takes place outside the classroom.

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