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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Handling History with Sarah Dhanjal Part 1

By Mohammed Rahman, on 20 May 2020

As part of a series looking at museum work that happens outside the public eye, we asked one of our longstanding workshop leaders about their experiences using different collections with primary school children. Sarah Dhanjal was an undergraduate and graduate student at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology and went on to a career working in engagement with many of London’s museums and collections. Here she talks about developing boxes of objects for outreach and why we encourage handling of even ancient and precious things. Words by Sarah Dhanjal.

Sarah Dhanjal in action at a primary school.

I started working on outreach sessions using objects from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology and the Institute of Archaeology in 2007. The current lockdown feels like the time to reflect on past developments and to look to the future.

I’m an archaeologist by background. As an undergraduate I was interested in Western and South Asia. Experience in museums after I graduated made me intrigued by other people’s engagement with archaeology and the role that we, as archaeologists, can fulfil. I credit this to my time as a Science Museum Explainer. Working in the interactive galleries and performing their science shows was an amazing training in being a facilitator, engaging with audiences and pitching complicated ideas at appropriate levels. I work for various museums now, developing and delivering historical and archaeological activities.

Back in 2007, at UCL we lent one or two boxes of archaeological objects to schools, for teachers to use in their classes. With new funding from UCL’s Access and Widening Participation unit, we were able to create short outreach workshops that we would run ourselves. It was clear that the resources needed to be easily portable and adaptable to different settings. Looking back at my early bookings, we worked with schools in their classrooms and their local libraries, with family learning groups, and with programmes for vulnerable people. We chose to focus on objects from Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt.

Primary school students engage with items from the archaeological object boxes Sarah has developed.

At the core of each resource is a link to the National Curriculum at Key Stage 2 (7-11 years old, Years 3-6). Linking to curricula can be risky, they are liable to change, as happened in England in 2013-14 (I look at the impact of this on one particular topic in my next post). The proposed changes were controversial, prompting protest from the heritage sector. World history looked likely to be forced out, but was retained after the consultation period. However, Prehistory was finally introduced in the new history curriculum, a subject UCL Institute of Archaeology was well placed to support. So our Ancient Greek and Egyptian sessions were then joined by a session on the Stone Age.

Schools can choose when and how they teach a subject and must create their own curriculum showing how it addresses each period. New OFSTED criteria mean that there is even more of an onus on teachers to justify their curriculum choices and demonstrate how they are teaching historical skills. Our workshops have become even more popular as a result.

A Greek pot shard from UCL’s archaeology collection- one of the objects handled during the sessions.

The main aim of all the sessions is on learning how to use archaeological evidence. Objects are chosen because they are robust and tactile as handling them is a key part of the experience. Even more importantly, they can promote discussion, the trained eye can spot clues to how the object was made and used. The challenge in using this approach is how to facilitate the kind of thinking process an archaeologist has spent years learning. Activities such as sketching can be useful to promote active looking. I put up discussion questions to help the class look for clues. My main role is to move around the class, promoting thinking and discussion by asking and answering questions. The knowledge-based content of the sessions is important as well, but it is used to frame our inquiries. Prior knowledge is also used to justify or explain our conclusions, either by the pupils themselves or modelled by me. Schools are already tackling chronology and key subject knowledge, it is our job to support that with complementary materials and skills.

The sessions reflect what is available in UCL collections: we are often asked for Roman sessions, but there is not enough material in the collections at the Institute of Archaeology to support a resource. Conversely, the collections contain some amazing objects from Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, my original area of interest, but there has never been enough evidence that resources would be in demand.

Sitting at my dining room table, the future seems uncertain. If social – physical – distancing is to become a part of our society, perhaps we need to think about how archaeology can be more accessible and useful at a distance. It will always be a thrill and a privilege to handle an object that someone held in their hands two thousand years ago.

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