Three months ago I blogged about the HLF funding I secured for a young people’s project at my site. This week, we’re completing the first activity of the project – the ‘research’ phase -, which I thought was a good time to share an update and explain why this is interpretation also.
We started off with two sessions during which we took the young people behind the scenes at the house, and also around the park. I made a point of not just telling them about the history as we know it, but really focussing them on what we don’t know (and there’s lots of it). I was surprised to find that the young people totally went for this: they started formulating really exciting research questions that ranged from ‘What happened to the Ironmaster’s children?’ to ‘Why did they turn this into offices when the house was given to the town?’
Armed with these research questions, the group (with us as chaperones) then went to spend four sessions with the local History and Archives group, the local history librarian as well as the Registrar. It worked out quite nicely that I was actually on annual leave for part of this, so that when I returned, we arranged for the young people to ‘present’ their findings to me. What impressed me was how much more confident the young people seemed at this stage. It felt to me like they considered themselves something of experts on the topics that they had researched, which was great to see.
Another thing that worked out quite well was that the young people realised that they couldn’t find answers to all the questions they had raised. On the back of this, we had a good conversation about history: that it isn’t ‘objective’, that it depends on the surviving sources, whose sources these are, and how we can understand them.
We also decided then to add another session (which is the one we’ll do this week), to see who else could help us with finding the answers to our remaining questions. For some of the group this is a step out of their comfort zone, because they’ll be writing letters to people they’ve never met and whom they’ll likely to consider as ‘beyond their reach’ (bearing in mind that the local area includes two of the most deprived wards in all of Wales).
So has this been interpretation, what we’ve been doing here? My answer is a very emphatic yes. This first activity is of course part of a larger project, in which each activity links in with and builds on the preceding one. As such, a lot of thought has gone into what we want to achieve with the project. One of the aims is one that any book on interpretation will proclaim as the aim of interpretation at large: to bring people closer to the heritage of our site. We want young people to engage directly with the site, and think about it, and learn about, and take it into the future. During this research activity, young people have done just that. They’ve learnt about the site, not just from the tours we’ve given them, but from the questions they’ve asked and researched themselves. Their confidence has markedly increased, which achieved two more of our aims: to increase their ability to speak about their heritage, and to increase their skills overall.
This latter aim is really important to me. You will be aware that I’m very interested in the expectation in legislation and policy that heritage (and interpretation) deliver public benefits, very often tied to desired strategic outcomes. For my local authority, upskilling people, and providing them with opportunities is a very important strategic outcome. This project is designed to use the site to increase people’s skills through their engagement with heritage. This first activity so far has been a great step in that direction.