Voices in the Gallery

A post from Clare Cory, Secondary & Young People Learning Officer and Paul Collins, Jaleh Hearn Curator for Ancient Near East about working with students from Oxford Spires Academy to explore and respond to objects in the Ancient Near East Gallery.

We may take it for granted that objects in museums can help us to understand something of the lives of past people, even within cultures that are very different and distant in time from our own. But many of these same objects can also connect us with more recent, living memories and be a source of comfort and inspiration. This was demonstrated very clearly in a project that explored young people’s responses to objects in the Ashmolean and captured their voices in gallery labels, audio and film.

Basalt grinding stone, 9000-8000 BC, Abu Hureya, Syria (AN1978.441)
View all the Voices in the Gallery films.

‘When I hold the hand I feel amazing. I want to tell lots of friends about what I did at the Ashmolean Museum. I tell then about the hand and I tell them that I hold the hand. It is 1,000 years ago. I feel enjoyed (sp) and I tell them I’m happy with that.’

Student from Oxford Spires Academy

‘Voices in the Gallery’ was a collaboration between the Museum and teachers at Oxford Spires Academy. We worked with a number of students from Eritrea, Syria and South Sudan who were part of a larger group in a school programme run by English teachers. The aim was to provide opportunities for the students to improve their English by talking, listening and writing as well as to develop something that they could take pride in and share at school and beyond. In the Museum, we wanted to explore new ways of working in the galleries with young people as well as to build on our existing relationships with the school. Ultimately, we all hoped that the students would be encouraged to view the Museum (and Oxford) as a welcoming place where they could discover something that was meaningful and relevant to themselves.

With current plans to redevelop the Museum’s Ancient Near East gallery, it was decided that this would be the ideal collection to explore since it could also help our planning for the new design and interpretation by identifying some of the objects and stories that were of interest to a group of young people. Throughout the project we drew on the skills of radio producer Penny Boreham and photographer Ian Wallman who captured the students’ voices, viewpoints and encounters (although it was agreed with the school that no faces would be shown in the photographs in order to protect identities – see below).

Initially, the students were given the opportunity to handle objects from the Ancient Near East collection in a study room. They were permitted, very unusually, to do this without conservation standard gloves so that they could feel the texture, form and weight of the objects and consider how they might have been made and used. Their teacher reflected: ‘it struck me as really important that they got to hold the object and really see it as something that was used, as a three dimensional object, rather than something that’s always behind a glass screen.’ It was interesting that in handling the objects the students gained the confidence to ask the curator questions and compare the objects – which ranged from one of the world’s earliest bricks to a stone seal and a spouted jar – with examples that serve many of the same functions today.

Voices in the Gallery
Photo credit: Ian Wallman

The handling session was to be followed by a gallery tour with the intention that the students would select an object to write about. Much to our surprise and delight, however, they were all very quickly drawn to individual objects in the gallery that appeared both familiar and meaningful. The depth of their personal responses was remarkable and they were keen to talk about memories of similar looking objects in their own lives and experiences. It was also fascinating that this also stimulated questions from them about the date, origin and use of the ancient objects on display.

‘It was interesting that lots of them were drawn to something that was familiar to them, something that might have a positive memory. I think that there was mutual learning that went on through the choices they made. I think everyone has something that they already bring into a gallery with them that’s part of the experience of the gallery, what you already bring to the object and what you can learn about it.’

Teacher from Oxford Spires Academy

The students returned to school and wrote a personal response to their object. We also visited the school and played each student their recording and gathered additional material, including them speaking in their first language. It was judged very important that the students had control of their material and had the choice over whether to share it. Their written text was produced as a case label by the Museum’s Design Department and placed in the on display beside the relevant object; the photographs and recordings were carefully and sensitively edited to create a short series of films for viewing online.

The project ended with a celebratory event at the Museum for all involved and at which we were joined by additional students from the school. Everyone watched the films, the students were presented with certificates and we visited the gallery to see the labels in place.

Museum staff and teachers reflect on the project
Audio credit: Penny Boreham

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