Gary Studley is currently poet-in-residence at Canterbury Roman Museum.
Buenos dias a todos and welcome to Blog Seven.
As hinted at in Blog Six, one of the wonderful things about the Canterbury Roman Museum is that it appears to have made the decision to slow things down in the way it exhibits artefacts and its expectations of what the public need or want. They seem to have decided to not follow in the galloping hoof-prints of so many other museums and visitor centres in believing that children and youths need a raft of interactive bells, buzzers and whistles to have a good time or learn something. Obviously, there are reasons why some attractions are interactive. For a start, mechanical based tourist sites – like railway / transport museums or science / space exploration centres – have the very essence of technology and movement in their nature. As such it would be remiss to not make the most of opportunities to show in an interesting and hands-on way how things work. On a simple level, some motorbike dealerships historically had counter-top demonstration models of engines with their casings open so that in cross-section the customers could see the precision engineering they were going to purchase and their tag-along children would become quietly mesmerised by their moving parts. In addition, let’s face it, for kids in particular there is something to be said for learning by doing – and it’s not a great leap to think that we adults might be the same.
Sometimes museums or particular exhibits have such a real quality that children get caught up in the moment and as the adults are typically in charge of the day, the balance between experiencing and avoiding has to be straddled.
A few years ago I was having a great time at Yorkshire’s excellent Eden Camp Museum. Sited on an old Prisoner of War camp, it is an expansive living history museum with a special focus on Britain between the wars and on WW2. I have a personal connection to the museum as my granddad served there as a POW camp guard whilst convalescing from his normal service. Eden Camp has hundreds of photographs, weapons, posters and many installations and like all good museums is hugely informative. As part of this it has one or two more active exhibits, including a hut which focuses on The Blitz. Whilst Canterbury’s Roman Museum has a static display mentioning how the Blitz helped us ‘discover’ the site itself, Eden Camp’s Blitz features a sound track, flashing lights, smoke and as I found out after a young girl barrelled into me as she ran screaming from the hut, a pile of rubble with realistic, frantically waving arm protruding from it and the groans of a bomb victim playing forlornly over the top. Suffice to say, there had been warning signs, but I guess if no adult read them to the girl it may have been the reason for her surprise? Happily Eden has a massive NAAFI canteen set up and I later saw her tucking in to a plate of ration chips covered in so much ketchup that I struggle to believe there was any way she could have been put off blood, war or the museum itself.
Although I have been inside many museums both as a child and as a teacher, during this residency I have had the luxury of not having the additional job of guiding anybody around; trying to ensure no-one runs off; stopping pupil’s attempts to furtively eat all their lunch before 10am; or apologising if they crawled under a rope barrier which only adults seem to know the significance of.
The Roman Museum itself is so calm and not at all in your face that it took some getting used to.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I like museums. I’m not in any way, shape or form one of those people who grew to detest them or get the lesser-known muse-fatigue syndrome. In comparison, a friend of mine recently told me that she was taken to so many museums by her parents as a child that they all blurred into one and she now struggles to recall any salient facts apart from which buildings were scarily dark or the one where she got stuck inside the armour. She added that this level of trips only stopped when her mum read an article in The Guardian which asked whether parents who constantly planned worthwhile days out full of the sort of culture and education they themselves liked, were running the risk of overdosing their kids and thus putting them off history and the arts forever. It was with real reminiscing glee that my friend went on to describe how her mum’s knee-jerk reaction to this was to book them on her most memorable holiday ever – a Euro-Disney long weekend. I’m not like that. When I was young, I’m not even sure Euro-Disney existed!
Growing up we had lots of UK breaks – not because it was fashionable or easy, but rather because there were six of us and we couldn’t afford to go abroad. Mind you, very few people did then, almost as if passports were seen as a sign of gross over-confidence and ferry crossings were for alcohol or tobacco runs, whilst also the ship only seemed go up hill and made the Pilgrims voyage to The New World seem like a doddle. Besides, we liked eating fish and chips in the steamed up back of the Ford Cortina Estate; loved malleting ant hills to make the groundsheet flat; laughed like crazy as we made the caravan bounce up and down by running from end to end. On the Norfolk coast one holiday we hugely enjoyed doing hand-stands on our beds to see how high we could get our feet up the chalet walls and only went into a melt-down panic when our plimsoll marks wouldn’t come off with a damp flannel – but the wall-paper pattern did. Once, whilst casting my fishing rod into the encroaching gloom of some midge ridden, valley camp in Devon, I caught a bat that unfortunately chose that moment to swoop past and I’m sure that apart from a stickleback I must have speared accidentally with a grasshopper on a safety pin, it was probably the only thing I ever tried to bring home. Another time I’m positive that I wouldn’t be here today (to drift way off the point in this blog!) if my mum hadn’t grabbed my hood by the draw-string which sealed my chubby cheeks in against the stinging rain, because my jacket was inflating and ready to sweep me off the face of Snowdon.
On all these trips there were castles with worn-out battlements so low that they made me want to vomit, yet at the same time feel drawn to dive right off the edge. The New Forest, Wookey Hole and Dartmoor were as alive and rich then as they are today and once we knew we weren’t going to drown on the causeway at St Michael’s Mount, the fudge and stuffed birds/weird pseudo-creatures in its shop were well worth the wobbly walk. You could spend hours rolling down grass banks (alas none at the Roman!) or squashing pennies flat in a strange press and once I swear that I nearly fainted with happiness by going down a slate mine! We didn’t need a dozen things to do and a hundred things to pick up, push, switch on. We were happy with a knight’s battle axe strapped to a wall; a dummy dressed up as a witch; or a bunch of cell keys to hold. If we were tired there would be books to flick through, colouring sheets to do there or collect and keep for later; sets of postcards to harvest and nearly always some supersized chair to try to climb up on.
Like I said in Blog Six, I have a disjointed view of technology and our rush to be forever bombarded, yet I love the ease with which I can contact loved ones and organisations that I belong to. Like-wise, I’m not one for nostalgia and don’t believe that things were always better in the past – I once fell up some steps at Dover Castle and hit so hard I was sure I must have kneecapped myself. My brother got so badly stung by wasps at one camp that it nearly made the family’s concurrent meat-pie-stomach-bug situation pale into the background.
Yet there is something that feels wonderfully familiar about the calmness of the Canterbury Roman Museum, with its quiet, non-hurried presentation of the artefacts and its plethora of information sheets for the adults and quiz/questionnaires for the kids.
There are still lots of things to see – just no apps to tour the building through or interactive headphone instructions beeping every time you have to move to address a new object. There are helpers with strong knowledge and a real enthusiasm for the subject – but they don’t force it upon you. They ask if you would like any help and are there to give interesting answers if you do. It’s like the museum administrators trusts you to look. They trust you to read, to want to learn and to discover at your own pace. And for me, who kicks against some things on almost a pre-set level, fantastically they respect you enough to not drive home verbally or constantly have signs popping up declaring Don’t Touch. But happily here in the depths of Canterbury we visitors can still be effected by what we see and what we learn – and next time I may even get round to telling you something far more precise about just such a thing!
For now though, I’m so pumped up on this historical vibe that I may very well run off to buy some Flying Saucers and a bottle of Tizer to wash them down with – because I seem to remember that their odd rice- paper skin will probably clag-up my throat and choke me to death! Toodloo.