These students at Eton are not Eton students. They are four to seven year olds visiting for a school trip, to learn more about what life was like for Eton boys one hundred and fifty years ago. As part of a new offer from Collections, local primary school students are being invited in to discover history through the lives of Eton students.
We started the session by trying to decipher an object from the collection of the Museum of Eton Life that even Collections had misidentified until recently. With some observation and careful thinking the children were able to decide that the object had something to do with lights – it was indeed a rush light holder (and not for pinching people). This began a discussion of candles, rush lights and life before electricity, letting the children display their prior knowledge.
Now that their brains were warmed up, students divided into small groups for various hands on activities, investigating the clothes, living conditions, leisure activities and education of Victorian Etonians. They had the chance to be creative, designing their own pop waistcoats. They practiced their skills of observation with the period schoolroom. They used primary sources with photos and excerpts from the Chronicle about different sporting events. As the children rotated around the activities, they gained an idea of what life was like for Eton students of that time period, compared to the Victorian children they had already learned about in class. When we came together at the end, the general agreement from the children was that although they liked the idea of having cake in their rooms, they would not have liked the birch!
This session is part of an exciting long term process of making Eton’s extensive and varied collections more accessible to local schools by turning the previous informal service into a standardised programme. Although it might seem counter-intuitive that the history of Eton, a fee-paying single sex secondary school, could be relevant to co-ed state primary schools, in truth the population of Eton has one great characteristic in common with these visiting students – they are all children. The boys who attended Eton were still just boys, living through the turmoil of their time. Thus Eton is a perfect example of the home front during the Second World War, with rationing, air raid shelters and even bombing raids. Old Etonians sacrificed themselves during the Great War, Tudor students toiled at their Latin, and Victorian boys were bound by the expectations of their class. This programme is not limited to history sessions. With two other excellent museums at hand, primary school students can also investigate various aspects of natural history as well as the Ancient Egyptians!
It is recognised that learning done outside of classrooms and through the medium of original objects is unique and different to that done in the classroom. These education sessions, using replica images and objects and containing activities to appeal to different learning styles, allow students from age four to 11 to access some of the collection’s rich resources. Once the primary programme is up and running, we will develop and expand our offer to secondary schools, focussing upon exam level students and the unique opportunities the Collection can offer them. These sessions make our objects accessible to more people, benefiting not only the students who attend but also the Collections.