Ruth Colton, Melanie Giles, Hannah Cobb and Siân Jones
Historic parks have always been sites of education for children: learning the names of plants and trees, games to play, how to behave well in the company of others. These were key motives for Victorian and Edwardian philanthropists, keen to improve the social, moral and physical wellbeing of urban communities. Arguably, many of these values are still important today, building on the educational principle that children learn best by doing, and that ‘open-air learning’ (espoused by Rousseau and his contemporaries) brought many benefits to all classes. The school component of the Whitworth Park project seeks to use the archaeological heritage of such spaces to re-engage children in the history of their local environment, hoping to rejuvenate Parks as contemporary ‘open air’ classrooms.
Through participation in survey, excavation and the handling of material culture, we have engaged local primary and secondary
school pupils (working alongside university students and local community volunteers) in archaeological field workshops. They have dug, washed, and interpreted fragments of lost Victorian toys, bottles and plates (traces of past picnics?), jewellery and house keys amongst other objects; learning through the things people lost or left behind about the changing standards of life in the area surrounding Moss Side from the mid 1800s to the present day. The war memorial and new sculpture have formed the focus of workshops on memory, and a means to explore how the past continues to shape values in the present day. Old postcards have inspired drama performances, where the children re-enacted moments in the Park’s life, such as the promenade; learning in the process, about how people dress and tailor their behaviour in public settings, both then and now.
We have also run poetry workshops, using poems to encourage them to think about the meaning of green spaces in urban environments. Some of the poems they have subsequently written throw light on the darker side of parks: the fears and insecurity children can experience as the day changes, and night falls. By introducing them to some of the archival material, we have been able to show them that such fears are not new, but concerned their Victorian and Edwardian counterparts too. Indeed, the extensive bye-laws and regulations guiding who could enter the park, who could sit where, and even the music that was licensed for the bandstand, have been a source of much amusement! Exploring maps from the 1860s, 1880s, 1920s and 1950s have not only helped the schoolchildren learn how to read such sources of information, but have allowed a creative engagement with a space that, at times, looked radically different to the present day. The open grass and wooded areas have been populated in their minds with a past landscape of ornamental bandstands and sheltered pavilions, boating lakes and fountains, and beds planted with colourful flowers. Many of these original features reflected the newly globalized world in their design or origin, enabling the students to situate Manchester within its industrial heritage. They have also articulated surprise at the rich facilities provided for children a hundred years ago, and have become more caring about the current park and ambitious for its future. This has allowed us to work co-operatively with the Friends of Whitworth Park, in their ongoing efforts to secure further funding to improve this local amenity.
As an HLF funded project, our aim is to connect University-led research with the future of the local community: breaking down the barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them’, to link the hopes and aspirations of local people with those of the University (see Jones et al this series). Embedding research in that local environment has enabled both members of the public and also students, to see how dynamic and responsive contemporary Higher Education can be to these pressing concerns, especially in subject areas like History and Archaeology. Our project partners, the Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre have been invaluable in helping us to design and deliver the educational activities designed to facilitate this outcome. The contacts, experience and understanding of their staff have enabled us to work with pupils from local schools, ranging from Primary-level children to Sixth-Form students. Furthermore, through the Manchester Museum’s ongoing work with YAC (the Young Archaeologists’ Club) we have been able to target young people with a special interest in heritage, to develop skills and knowledge outside of the school curriculum.
A particular highlight of the project has been the PhD research of Ruth Colton, who is exploring aspects of Victorian childhood through the creation, design and use of public parks. Talking to children today about their own use and understanding of the park’s space has helped develop her interpretation of past practices. Looking through the postcards of Edwardian children in their Sunday best, in preparation for their drama performances, the pupils have mimicked the exaggerated gestures of formality and deportment which those children also had to learn. Handling the beautifully glazed ceramic ‘five stones’ or seeing the small sail boats on the lake, has also helped them to reflect on the creation of ‘toys’ in that era, think about their own favourite games and the way in which they currently ‘play’ in the Park. Ruth’s research has given our work a special focus on the lives of children – past and present – and the role of parks in education: a motive which underpinned both the formation of Whitworth Park itself (originally known as ‘The Children’s Park’) and our ongoing activities there today. It has been an intensively rewarding process for all, and not only the finds from the dig, but the poems and interpretations by the children will become part of an exhibition to be displayed in the Manchester Museum. In this way, we hope that we are not merely taking Victorian heritage out of the academy: local children are coming into the academy, transforming our knowledge and understanding of this most exciting era.
Ruth Colton is a PhD student studying the role of the late-Victorian Public Park in creating, defining and challenging notions of childhood. Her work is informed by the Whitworth Park Community Archaeology and History Project for which she is also the Project Assistant.
Dr Melanie Giles specializes in the late Bronze Age and Iron Age in Britain and Europe. She has published widely on identity, memory, death and burial and has worked closely with museums and schools.
Dr Hannah Cobb’s research explores the relationship between materiality, identity and place, with a focus on the Mesolithic. She has also published on the practice of archaeology.
Professor Siân Jones specializes in the archaeology of identity and the conservation of cultural heritage. She has published extensively on ethnicity, authenticity, memory, identity and place. She has also carried out applied research on archaeology, communities and the social significance of heritage.
Corresponding author: Ruth Colton, School of Arts Languages and Cultures, Mansfield Cooper Building, University of Manchester, M13 9PL.