By Frances Long
On 7 January, a large proportion of CECS descended on the Vale and Downland Museum, Oxfordshire, to host an Eighteenth-Century Study Day for local sixth-form students. Six postgraduate speakers, of whom five were from York, were joined by our own Joanna de Groot as keynote speaker.
The collaboration was the result of Frances Long’s longstanding association with the museum, and was intended both to supplement the museum’s limited eighteenth-century collections, and the restricted provision of eighteenth-century material in the school curriculum. The day was structured around three panels, with students divided into small groups and rotating between sessions.
Using the museum as the venue was an excellent choice. The session led by Lilian Tabois and Hannah Kaspar (Leeds), which focussed on the Grand Tour and collecting classical artefacts, was held in the Auditorium, a gallery with an interactive map of the Downlands, echoing the travel theme. Holly Day and Helena Senior’s panel on life-writing took place in the Downland Kitchen, a cosy reconstruction of a kitchen showcasing objects from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the domesticity of the scene compensated for the later period. The final panel, led by Rebecca Simpson and Frances Long and exploring developments in midwifery and the history of sleep, was held in the Barn, where the museum’s Formula 1 racing car provided an interesting, if incongruous, backdrop to the discussion of medicine and the body.
It was a pleasure to work with the students, whose intellectual curiosity and lively engagement helped drive the discussion forward. By structuring the day around short talks interspersed with discussion sessions, the students experienced some of the main types of teaching that they can expect at university. They also had the chance both to learn new things and then to apply them in post-discussion debates. It was exciting to watch as the students made connections and used primary sources to draw out themes for themselves, especially as at least one student made an observation not noticed by the speaker!
Joanna de Groot’s excellent keynote extended the discussion beyond Europe; she introduced students to a number of unfamiliar concepts which stimulated extensive discussion. As well as demonstrating the interconnectedness of eighteenth-century global trade, Joanna helped students to consider how different history looks when viewed from the perspective of non-European actors. This was mentioned by a number of attendees as a highlight of the day.
If there is one piece of advice we would like to give other CECS academics in engaging with schools, it is to start much earlier than you think you need to! Although we had a good turnout, we managed to time the start of our publicity with university applications and coursework deadlines. While many students were keen on coming (and even communicated this to our collaborator at the museum), they put off booking until the end of term, which was perilously close to the event! Teachers, too, took longer to engage than we anticipated. We were delighted with the audience we got, but it would have saved some stressful moments if they had booked a little earlier…
Frances and Lilian would like to thank WRoCAH for funding the event, as well as the Vale and Downland Museum for providing a beautiful venue, an excellent lunch (with the best coffee cake ever), and invaluable support in organising the day. Particular thanks go to Mel Rowntree at the museum for her constant help and support.