Ancient Lives/Future Skills: Discovering Graeco-Roman Egypt at the Manchester Museum

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora's dossier

The team of Kim and Katharina working on Artemidora’s dossier

Yesterday I led a school day on Graeco-Roman Egypt with a group of colleagues, graduate students and staff of the Manchester Museum. Using artefacts and papyri from the Manchester Museum and the John Rylands Library collections, we asked sixth form students of Runshaw College (Manchester) and Holy Cross College (Bury) to create short I-pad video-biographies of fictitious characters supposed to have lived in Egypt under the Roman rule. The results were impressive in terms of creativity and competence. They made me think a lot about how dramatically different the learning environment has become, and how inadequate some of our teaching still is.

Based on last year experience with schools for the exhibition Faces&Voices, the Graeco-Roman Egypt day at the museum has confirmed some trends:

Pupils do like ancient history and museums. The school day was attended by about 30 enthusiastic and engaged students. In their feedback forms pupils said that they wanted more time to be spent in the galleries where they were asked to find one object to add to their biography dossier. They also liked the object-based approach to ancient history as a more effective way to study history.

Students' feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Students’ feedback with appreciation for Chris, the graduate student team leader

Pupils like to be taught by people closer to their age. The pupils were divided into five groups led by a graduate student of our division (Classics & Ancient History, and Religion & Theology), and they enjoyed the experience. I noticed that they chatted a lot with their University peers, but were much less talkative when I interacted with them. Graduate students should be given more seminar teaching by Universities in close collaboration and under the supervision of senior course leaders. This will increase the quality of our courses and the student experience as both undergraduates and graduates.

Pupils like objects better than texts. Being a visual generation this is not surprising and it is positive because material culture should be much more integrated into ancient history teaching at all levels. It is nonetheless a point on which educators must find some sort of counter-balance. The ability of critical textual analysis is still a crucial skill. The syntax and grammar of social media communication and the overwhelming quality and quantity of digital and non-digital images that surround us are undermining students’ ability to approach texts critically and to write. (Answers to this? I don’t see many at the moment. May group reading be a strategy?)

Pupils are creative. This actually enhances our experience as teachers and scholars. Our work, especially as scholars, tends to be restricted by academic conventions that do not encourage creativity. I was actually inspired, entertained and intellectually stimulated in ways I am not so often, for instance, while listening at conference papers. Creative intelligence tends to be forgotten and less valued than other intellectual qualities in the education process.

This model of seminar is definitely successful and rewarding for all the people involved, and I am now trying to find ways of integrating aspects of it into my university courses. In the light of this on-going experience, I believe that having closer relationships with college students and teachers is essential for lecturers.

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I died in Hawara

Working in conjunction with Faces&Voices and Constantine’s Dream, pupils from Thomas Whitham Sixth Form College, Burnley, have been exploring issues of identity and multiculturalism through the papyri and mummy portraits in the Faces&Voices Exhibition. The students have each made podcasts from the point of view of a mummy portrait.

This is the result!

Bringing Faces&Voices outside the Library

Over the next few months, students from the University and Thomas Whitham 6th Form College in Burnley will be making podcasts – short videos that will be posted online – that will bring the papyri and mummy portraits to life for audiences beyond the Library.

In their podcasts, undergraduate and postgraduate students from the Classics and Religions departments at Manchester are going to explore how papyri from the exhibition, combined with ancient and modern visual art, shed light on ancient ‘identity issues’ such as religion, gender, wealth and poverty, ethnic diversity, and colonial power.

We will also be running a workshop with pupils from Thomas Whitham 6th Form College. The pupils will get to handle the papyri, discuss their relevance to the study of the modern and the ancient world and develop podcasts in which they will interview the resident experts.

Other plans include a live ‘Talking Points’ debate at the College involving pupils, academic and library staff, and student members of the Faces and Voices Project, an exhibition at the College’s Faith Centre in Burnley, and a virtual exhibition hosted on the Faces&Voices website.

Other workshops, including one with Fathi Hassan, will be launched in the Autumn.

First podcasting session next 11th June: stay tuned!