Frances Long and Lilian Tabois write a joint post about their recent WRoCAH-funded event hosted at the Vale and Downland Museum in Wantage. They organised an eighteenth-century study day for sixth-form students of local schools and shared their research with a captivated and enthusiastic audience.
Frances Long and Lilian Tabois
Department of History and Department of English
University of York
If you ever have the chance to collaborate on a project with an external partner, we hope that they are as welcoming and enthusiastic as the Vale and Downland Museum. The museum, in Wantage, Oxfordshire, is relatively small, but explores everything ‘From Fossils to Formula One’; whether it is the geology of the Oxfordshire Downs, Roman pottery, Victorian agriculture, or racing cars being used as wall ornaments, it has something for everyone. Frances was lucky enough to spend a year working with the museum before joining WRoCAH, and had always hoped to have the chance to say thank you in some tangible way. We hope that our Eighteenth-Century Study Day, co-organised with Mel Rowntree at the VDM, was a fitting tribute.
The Study Day was aimed at sixth-form students, and introduced them to some key themes in eighteenth-century studies, as well as some more specialist case studies. The National Curriculum has minimal engagement with the eighteenth century, so we were thrilled to be able to offer students a new area to study. The period saw the roots of a number of important current themes, from colonialism to scientific and technological advancement. The philosophical and moral debates all engaged with issues that in many ways find echoes today. This came strongly out of the sessions, and feedback suggests that the discussions gave the students much food for thought.
The day was structured around three small groups of students rotating between three panels. This meant that the groups could be kept small, and discussion lively. Because the talks were held in the galleries, the atmosphere was informal, and the setting was very appropriate to the topics discussed. For instance, Lilian Tabois and Hannah Kaspar, who spoke on the Grand Tour of Europe and the collecting of classical art respectively, were in the Auditorium, a gallery with an interactive map of the Downlands, echoing the travel theme of the panel. Similarly, Holly Day and Helena Senior were in the Downland Kitchen, where the discussion of diary- and letter-writing was appropriately set around an old wooden table, and surrounded by crockery and cooking equipment from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The final panel, where Rebecca Simpson and Frances Long discussed the history of midwifery and of sleep, took place in the Barn Gallery, a little more incongruously surrounded by agricultural equipment and the racing car, but the emphasis on innovation was still appropriate to the discussion of health and medical developments in the period.
We were delighted to welcome Dr Joanna de Groot, from the University of York, as our keynote speaker. Her paper explored the difference which shifting from a Euro-centric to a more global perspective has on our understanding of history. She also introduced the students to the interconnectedness of eighteenth-century life. For instance, the growth of that quintessentially English activity, tea-drinking (an import from China), stimulated the trade in Caribbean sugar and sparked industries in Britain to produce the tea sets needed to consume the drink. This was something that none of the students had considered before. Joanna also encouraged students to consider history from the perspective of peoples outside Europe, where pressures and successes came at different times and sparked different concerns and trajectories.
The plenary session gave students some insights into the pressures of university life, and how to manage these, including choosing a course and accessing support. From the feedback, it is clear that students enjoyed the day, gaining insights simultaneously into an unfamiliar area of history, and what it is like to undertake humanities study at university. For the speakers, it was a chance to engage with a different audience, who asked new and interesting questions and reminded us all of why we love to communicate about our subject.
We had one major learning point that we think WRoCAH students should take away with them: start your publicity and bookings earlier than you think you need to! We knew that students wanted to come – they told our museum colleagues so – but they were so busy with coursework and the university applications cycle that bookings didn’t pick up at first. Contacting schools and opening bookings earlier would not only have given students longer to think about coming (and arrange travel if they needed to); it would also have meant that their teachers were more able to consider the benefits of the event for their students. Despite this, we had a good turnout; the students made some very insightful contributions to discussions, and the feedback we received was that students enjoyed the day greatly.
We would like to thank the staff at the Vale and Downland Museum, particularly Mel Rowntree, for their fantastic support in running the event, and for providing us with the best coffee cake in the country!