Living Heritage

Mike Corbishley explains how English Heritage, custodian of much of the best of England’s built historical environment, makes the past accessible to young minds

Colchester primary school. Pupils and staff worked with English Heritage Education and the Colchester Archaeological Trust to discover their local Roman heritage. Through the enthusiasm of an individual archaeologist who brought real Roman pottery into school, members of this class were able to take themselves back to the past.

But it is not always possible to have someone or something interact with a child on a one-to-one level. Usually there is physical barrier that stands between us and the evidence for the past. Visitors are rarely able to touch actual objects from the past. A barrier often exists simply because we rarely see a complete object or site. Visitors to ancient sites, more often than not, are presented with only a small part of what was once there - the east wall of a priory church or the foundations of a Roman villa, for example. Visitors want to know the whole of what was once there and, increasingly, want to know how we know what we claim to know about the past.

Museums and heritage sites have always looked for new ways of presenting themselves and their evidence. Increasingly now they put on exhibitions and displays driven by computer programmes that can deliver complex light and sound experiences. Sites also use human interpreters more and more - from characters in costume to full-scale costumed events.

Eureka, dedicated entirely to them. Sites and museums frequently try to present themselves in a lively way, yet their displays often still need the intervention of an adult in the family or of the teacher on a school visit. To compensate, many of these places run workshops and holiday activities especially designed for children.

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