Sunday 14 February 2010

Education: It's Not Just About Coins Though, Is It?

In the post (Ancient Coins and the Corruption of Youth ) to which I referred in the post above discussing the Ancient Coins for education programme, ACCG's Peter Tompa takes issue with my statement that it is a totally false argument to suggest that one can be "educated" by collecting decontextualised artefacts potentially stolen from the archaeological record of another region. He goes on to say that
I'm all for using ancient coins ("decontextualized" or not) to help teach our children about ancient history. In that regard, ACE is only doing in the classroom what museums themselves have started to do-- give the public and particularly children-- the opportunity for some "hands on" experience with common ancient artifacts, like ancient coins.
Yes they are, many museums in Great Britain and Poland at least have schools outreach programmes, with specially trained staff and facilities for exactly this. I know a number of people who work in this area and have myself taken part in such events. Incidentally, this is not something museums over this side of the Atlantic have "just started" doing, this was going on when I was at school myself; if the USA is behind other countries in this field of education, I am sorry to hear that (and that might explain a lot). In my case I went to a little rural school out in the sticks which was part of a system of travelling exhibitions with material that was available for handling (for some reason, I still vividly remember handling a real chainmail shirt in one devoted to Medieval chivalry), so it was not necessary for the school to be in the town where the museum is to benefit. In the UK the Portable Antiquities Scheme also organizes numerous finds handling sessions for adults as well as kids in their classrooms.

Anyhow, there is a huge difference, is there not, in specially trained and appointed staff teaching kids about the past with the use of objects in a museum, and some fat middle aged bloke off the street showing some kids his coin collection. There is a difference in approach, between something collected for public benefit and something collected for personal use and - let's face it - bragging rights. Between something which is in common ownership and that which has been appropriated for his own personal use by a private individual. In a museum (and here's that asinine 'Universal Museum' argument being used more appropriately) the objects seen and handled by the kids can also be seen in the wider context of other exhibits in the museum, taking the experience from the narrower to the more general. The use of museums in this way also encourages kids to go into museums and shows them what they can get out of such a visit. This is no bad thing.

From my own experience, I sincerely doubt one can teach as much about the past showing kids "just coins" as one could showing them other object types, Roman keys, knives, pots, personal ornaments and so on. Using just coins to illustrate a lesson forces one to concentrate on the aspects we learn of from written sources, the "kings and battles" model of history, focussing on the deeds and aspirations of the elite (which they can read about in books anyway) and not the experiences of the common man. Using other sources and the other types of archaeological evidence gives a more rounded picture of "what it was like" in all periods of the past (not just those served by coinage). I am convinced that ancient coins alone are severely limited as educational material.

At least, instead of being "Ancient Coins for Education", the organization would give a better service (better, more rounded, education) if it was called "Ancient Objects for Education", and included visits to classrooms of specialists with returnable handling collections of ancient pottery, personal ornaments, keys, knives from a museum collection - perhaps one specially created to fulfill such a purpose. I am sure handling even a replica gladius and scutum (or Hoplite weapons or whatever) would be very welcome in a US classroom, coupled with a video of a re-enactment group in action (better still of course would be seeing a GOOD one live). How about a session with the kids writing (in whatever language) on replica ancient writing materials (clay tablets, wax tablets, papyrus - now obtainable in notepad form, maybe even with a bit of effort, parchment)? All sorts of projects can be invented by the good teacher, without the need to handle a single potentially looted artefact from the no-questions-asked market. This should then be followed up by a "how do we know?" session, and the topic of conservation of the archaeological record can be introduced here and linked to the issues of preservation of any finite and non-renewable resource.

This of course would complely remove the stigma that the main purpose of ACE is (by giving out free authentic ancient coins) to try and persuade children to develop an interest in collecting ancient coins and thus become future customers of the coin dealers that supply the programme with coins ("sowing the dragons' teeth" of an army of supporters for no-questions-asked collecting). So I guess we cannot expect the ACCG and those associated with it to be wholly enthusiastic about such an initiative.
Photo: PAS (I think its the FLO from Exeter?)


Marcus Preen said...

"some fat middle aged bloke showing some kids his coin collection."

Hahaha! You mean swag bragging?

Yeah, it happens a lot in British schools, sadly. "Look at my osprey eggs" would be make a good joint presentation. Very edukashional.

Anonymous said...

Books are good too. Start with the Peter Connolly ones, eg. Pompeii or the Holy Land or Roman Fort or Cavalryman or...

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