Sue Reddish has just completed her contract as one of our Curious Agents. Here are Sue’s thoughts on her time as the agent for Greater Manchester.
“So what other job would take you from sitting at the desk that Marx and Engels met at to compose the Communist Manifesto, to being a football pundit with Gary Lineker? And all within 10 minutes? Being a heritage Curious Agent for Greater Manchester has certainly been an eye opener.
It has been a pleasure taking some time to discover the wealth of heritage sites we have in greater Manchester and the learning resources they inspire. I’ve met Museum Officers, Costumed Characters, Volunteers, Learning Managers, Facilitators and Teachers all of whom, in very different ways, see their role as bringing the unique stories and objects in their collections alive, to animate the site and help engage pupils and teaching staff. The strengths of the sector in this geographic area are numerous, not least being the wealth of facilities Manchester City and wider Greater Manchester has to offer: three National Museums – Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI), The Imperial War Museum North (IWMN) and The National Football Museum (NFM – where you can interact with Gary and other football pundits) and several collections of regional significance – the largest collection of fashion outside London at Gallery Of Costume and Manchester Museum’s extensive collection. It also has some great local gems, including the East Lancs Railway or the oldest free public reference library in the UK at Chethams, where Marx and Engels met – and that is to name but a few.
As part of the first year as a Bridge organisation, Curious Minds sent the Heritage Curious Agents out to meet with Heritage sites, Libraries and Archives to help build relationships and to learn about the excellent practice that is out there, and share learning with the wider cultural sector. I’ve had the opportunity to look behind the scenes of many a museum, nosey around the stores, and ask lots of questions! And perhaps most importantly watch Children and Young People exploring these heritage sites and watch them demonstrate first hand what a wealth of enquiry and experiential learning opportunities the heritage sector offers.
One of the things I’ve discovered is that I want to run away and join an archive! I had arranged to meet with the Archive Manager at Wigan & Leigh Archives Services. I didn’t have high hopes, it was a very wet Tuesday afternoon in Leigh and I wasn’t sure such a small resource could offer much educational support. How wrong I was! I came away, having fallen in love – with archives you understand! Well I have always had a thing about stationary and archives are certainly textural tactile places. But this archive, or the small room I saw lined in brown cardboard boxes and jars full of paper clips –(evil apparently in archive terms as they have a tendency to rust and must be removed) was one of the most magical of places. Each box was full of documents, each document told a story, both the drama of everyday life and the big historical events were represented. I was told of the letters and diaries of one young man – Arthur Turtle – who as a conscientious objector, sent to Strangeways for his beliefs. The archive held his original diaries and the letters he wrote home to his family in Leigh. The archive Manager and his team of Volunteers had seen that these authentic documents could capture the imagination of children and young people and had created a drama role play – played out in the old council chambers downstairs from the archive – in which the modern young Leigh residents were presented with some of the dilemmas that had concerned the young man from a different age.
Alex Miller, the Archive Manager at Wigan Archives Services (managed by Wigan Leisure & Culture Trust) talked about the ongoing process of slowly digitising many of the resources the archive holds and making them more accessible. The archive has its own Facebook page, where original documents are regularly put up. Recent ones have included a 19th centuary Temperance movement publication entitled ‘The Advantages of Drunkenness’, and evidence that George Orwell used the Wigan Library to write part of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ – the very neat signature of Eric Blair is in the visitors book. You can see for yourself on www.facebook.com/WiganArchivesService. Alex was very clear that he wants to increase the educational opportunities that the archive has to offer and is particularly interested in cascading learning through the teachers – – “if they are comfortable and confident about accessing the material in the archive, they can use us as an integrated learning resource in school across the curriculum.” The archives at Leigh and also resources I saw at Chethams Library and John Rylands are all working within the framework of recommendations by the National Archives – ‘Archives for the 21st Century’ agenda of promoting access & life long learning.
Alongside the collections I found that the workforce, be they paid or voluntary, are the sector’s greatest asset. Having met with many of them through this process it was clear that the staff’s passion for their subjects, knowledge of their collections and ability to engage CYP is the greatest resource. The heritage staff working in partnerships with schools are the gate keepers to many a great adventure and enable Children and Young People to be the football pundits, historians, engineers, revolutionaries, scientists or novelists of the future.
By Sue Reddish