Dear Tracey, Stephen, Zoe and Al,
I just wanted to share with you a little bit of a really wonderful experience I had on Thursday with Issabella and Eva. I’ve attached some photo’s to accompany, what in all likelihood they have probably divulged in some details to you already, but if only for our records I felt like documenting some of this lovely morning.
As with so much we do at TMP we always try to set expectations suitable for the child’s experience, so when connecting them to a new piece of academic work we look for the appropriate degree of challenge to engage their active minds but also to allow for that vitality giving sense of success and accomplishment. The same approach is taken when facilitating the children’s Going’s Out. So when a 6 and 7 year old are organising a trip into their society to follow an interest and answer questions the books might not be able to, we realise wholeheartedly that the experience can at times verge on the overwhelming side, and so we marvel really at the courage and fearlessness they display when leaving the red door of TMP and head (hopefully in the right direction) along the pavement. Quite often just being outside of the Elementary environment, with their friend is such an exciting and breath taking experience that any kind of sophisticated intellectual activity is naturally unrealistic, and yet the emotional and sensorial experience they have is such a crucial stepping stone on their path to independence in this activity that we see it as fulfilling as when the older children go out to gather that deeper level of knowledge.
Almost immediately however I was struck by the fact that this beginner level of expectation was not relevant for Issabella and Eva. Not only did the girls leave on time having gone through all the necessary preparatory admin and sartorial considerations, through their actions and their language they showed that they were completely in control and focused on the task in hand: to get to Brighton Museum on the No.7 bus to discover more about their beloved Bronze Age.
Part of what was striking here was that both girls had such a canny geographical sense. Both knew where they were all along the route. Eva pointing out here old nest by Seven Dials and Issabella referencing her very distinctive previous dwelling, the Ibis Hotel. This sort of awareness by the way is not the norm but it was so plainly adding to their sense of security and confidence, it was a pleasure to observe and would come in handy when the first stumbling block was hit upon.
“The next stop is North Road, please do not leave any belongings as you leave the bus”.
“This is our stop!”, piped out Eva and Issabella, and off they set down from the very back of the top deck of the bus.
Off we get.
“Right, now we go through the Pavilion Gardens to the Museum” explains Eva.
Eva had not written down the directions for the Museum, instead she made a conscious decision to memorise the steps. Why carry any unnecessary paper around with you when you’ve got a mind that can do it for you was seemingly the reasoning behind this decision.
“Ok, I don’t see any Pavillion Gardens?” says Eva
“What were your directions again?” I ask.
“Number seven bus to North Street, then straight through the Pavilion Gardens to Brighton Museum”.
“Ok, so what does the street name say up there?”
“Oh, ok, is that right then?” I ask.
“Yeah! Street and Road mean the same thing. Come it’s this way, I can see the Dome down there”. Eva was obviously misinformed about some of the details of town planning here, but clearly she didn’t have time to dwell on that given her inner guide’s insistence that she would be successful in her latest challenge no matter what happened.
“Yeah, I recognise this. I’ve been here hundred’s of times. It’s this way,” explained Issabella boldy. And so off we went east, down the sunny side of North Road.
This was so lovely to watch. When a sense of security and self belief is married with an uninhibited reasoning mind, and a clear understanding of what it means to be safe in an urban environment, the result evidently is two individuals that face each moment freshly and take to the challenge, with some aplomb, of achieving one’s goals: to get to Brighton Museum on the No.7 bus and discover more about the Bronze Age.
So within a couple of minutes we find ourselves on the pedestrianised section outside the Theatre Royal. Some amazing navigation skills to get us there I must say but self belief and self-confidence have tiptoed momentarily into blind faith now, so amid the quiet excitement I point out a little map stationed on the corner of the gardens. Again I was very taken by the ability of both girls to make sense of this bird’s eye view representation of their locality, and with a gentle point to a new bit of cultural information (the “you are here” arrow), they were able to work out the route to the Museum entrance. They also noticed a road name displayed on the map which gave them that ‘a ha’ moment about the intricacies of the English language. North ‘Road’ is not the same as North ‘Street’ apparently. “LOL, street and road are not the same silly, look!” Says Eva to herself as she strides off into the park. Talk about the perfect prepared environment for giving a real sensorial experience of the subtleties of the abstract concept of synonyms.
After some more sign reading and arrow following we arrive at the entrance of the Museum. Now’s the opportunity we take when the experience is new to the child to orient them on some of the workings of our society and also express our gratitude for those hidden workings and the people involved in making it possible. It goes a little something like this. “So here we are, Brighton Museum. For hundreds of years our society has treasured the idea of keeping objects and information from our history in prestigious buildings like this one. It has also found ways to make it possible for people to enter it completely free of charge, and not only that, but to pay some people to work in these buildings as servants to the visitors, who can ask them for help at any time. It’s pretty amazing isn’t it? So what do you think our responsibil…..” [I’m interrupted at this point. Again I’m getting schooled in what levels of expectations to have for these young explorers],
“We need to be very quiet at all times when we’re inside. Other people might be using this building, and if we want to talk we have to whisper”. This message seems to be coming from both girls at the same time, not sure how that happens but they we are, and in we go, across the shop floor to the front desk.
“Could you tell me where the entrance is please?”, asks Eva as she stands in the shadow of, and pretty much facing what could only be perceived as a huge entrance to a public museum. The receptionists smile seeing the irony and point out the entrance, I sheepishly feel reassured that Eva is still 6, thank goodness, I was starting to wonder for a while there. So in we go armed with a map, of sorts, and so the reverence began.
With little fuss and an equal measure of adult intervention the girls find their way to the main Bronze Age display. So perhaps now take a look at the first couple of photos attached.
This, as you can see, is a meagre offering to such dedicated Bronze Age-ologists, or at least it was in my eyes. Issabella and Eva had a different impression. I think I can only describe their reaction in terms of the memory I have of the Elementary’s jubilation behind the curtain after the Christmas Play last year. It really was as though they’d discovered the lost city of Atlantis. So lovely. “Yeaah, we found it!!”
And so they set to it. Soaking up this treasured display. They had to remove a few layers at this point too off course. How they got both their huge coats into the tiny rucksack we took I don’t know, but it signified an interesting shift in their psychology. Free they were now of the yearning to conquer the physical environment of their society, bus routes, maps, weather, and now they were ready it seemed to conquer that vast intellectual environment we call mankind’s story.
Again I want to mention the striking focus these girls had to: get to Brighton Museum on the No.7 bus and discover more about the Bronze Age. No sooner had they shed some layers, armed themselves with pencil, paper and clipboard and knelt down to observe the display, than their minds had honed in on a blatant incongruity in their research into the Bronze Age jewellery and tools on show at Brighton Museum. Two of the items they had been researching, the famous Sussex Loops, appeared to be on the Iron Age shelf. This couldn’t be surely?
“We’ve been researching the Iron Age not the Bronze Age”, Eva self-consciously pronounces. “Nooo, maybe they put it in the wrong place”, reassures Issabella, to which Eva, reclaiming her authority on the subject agrees, “Yeah, silliy billies, they put them in the wrong place”, giggle, chortle, guffaw.
The next mini episode of the trip was really lovely too. The helpful strangers behind the front desk had given the girls a flyer of a new display in the Museum compromising a film about an archaeological discovery made in Whitehawk. The film is called Red Earth and was being shown on the mezzanine section of the first floor. Now as you may know, the Brighton Museum has not the labyrinthine quality which Gabriel and Eli described after their trip to the British Museum this week, so with a short detour through the history of street entertainment display, the girls found their way to the three screens showing the advertised film, Red Earth.
There wasn’t much context given to this film by the written display. Both girls spotted and read the tiny bit of information offered and were none the wiser, so with time to spare before their scheduled appointment with the Museum Curator, they found comfortable positions on the backless sofas provided and started to take it in.
What happened here was really an interesting thing to observe. The film is a re-enactment of a time in the late Neolithic Period, just before their beloved Bronze Age, set on top of the hills of Whitehawk where the remains of four human beings were found with grave goods and other archeologically relevant findings. The style of the film was new to me, and presumably to the girls. It projected three different moving images across the three screens, and in a disjointed and mood captivating way it showed modernly dressed actors engaged in everyday neolithic activities, like sharpening and throwing a wooden spear, lighting a fire, stalking, hunting and skinning a deer. It also showed a pregnant woman laying down in foetal like position and being surrounded by stones, clearly ceremonially, to give the viewer a feeling of what it might have been like to bury a loved one around this time.
With the somewhat abstract and certainly unfamiliar style and content of the film I had very little expectation that this would invite engagement from the girls. How wrong I was. They were transfixed. Their eyes drawn sporadically from one screen to the other trying to follow a seemingly absent narrative, and their minds clearly drawn to piecing together the action as they verbalised questions and answers related to what they thought they were watching. It was so interesting, and it was such a clear example of how their minds were using the recently acquired knowledge to do with early human research and most recently more focused bronze age research, to orient and build a picture of the world as it was and how it relates to the world today.
So would the film deliver to the girls some kind of final conclusion about this part of the human story, we were not to find out as their meditation was interrupted by a call from across the gallery.
“Pete is it?”
“Meet Eva and Issabella”.
It was Andy Maxted, Curator of Brighton museum, who had arranged to meet us about 20 minutes later, but after bumping into us by chance could see no reason to delay the appointment. And so time for another new experience for the girls. A meeting, just for them, with one of their societies trusted servants.
After a short discussion with the girls about the Whitehawk findings the three of them headed back to the original Bronze Age “display”. At this point it was necessary, as usual, to orient our host, with the unfamiliar concept of talking straight to the humans still in childhood, without using the adult present as some kind of context translator. I must say though, once hidden from a mutual eyeline as I slipped round the corner to enjoy the experience on a purely auditory level, Andy adapted very well to the new dynamic and it was a real pleasure to listen to this compelling interaction.
The girls as you may know had prepared a range of questions about the bronze age for Andy. They had written them out on index cards and left a space on the back of the card under the title “Answer:” for the answers. I could tell Andy was struck by the nature and volume of the questions. I could really hear this person light up as he entered a dialogue with two enthusiastic young children about a subject he had clearly had a passion for, for a long time, but who I got the sense didn’t get too many opportunities to swim around in that passion with others, even as the Curator of a prestigious public institution.
The questions came thick and fast, Eva asking and Issabella recording the answers in writing. Such was the rapidity of the inquiry at one point Issabella had to concede “Can we slow down a bit, what was the answer to the question before the one you just asked?”. Some re-tredding then of the intellectual landscape, and then on to the next question:
“Oh this question is possibly the best question of them all. I wrote this one,” says Eva excitedly and quite unashamedly.
“When did the Bronze Age END!!!???”
I’ve just laughed out loud again remembering this moment. How can sincerity and earnestness be captured in any purer form? It was such a pleasurable experience to listen and watch this interaction. Clearly though it was as much a pleasure for Andy as it was for the girls and I. Once the questioning had abated, and after some silent consideration from Andy, he offered an invitation to the girls which turned out to be quite an uncommon one: “Would you like to come to the Vault to see a real Bronze Aged axe” asked Andy. “Yeaah”, cheered both Eva and Issabella, their eyes lighting up as they looked to each other in a moment of bliss. “What’s a vault though?” asks Issabella, “Yeah, what’s a vault?” repeats Eva. They were soon to find out.
Ah, I forgot to mention one thing. On arrival at the display with Andy, the girls, with a mixture of humility and pride, pointed out their earlier discovery, the erroneous composition of the Bronze Age display. With a coy smile, Andy concurred with the girls the error, and conceded that their attention to detail had indeed exceeded the seasoned curators of this section of the museum. This was to be no average ‘school’ type visit after all.
The coat laden bag was very innocently becoming a bit of a burden now to poor Eva who had earlier agreed to carry it all the way to the museum, with Issabella agreeing to carry it on the return journey. I offered to take the bag sensing there was a more premium kind of independence being sought than the battle against gravity encompassed by the heavy luggage. The girls were then lead down some steep stone steps, after Andy quietly asks whispering in my ear whether I thought it was alright for the girls to negotiate these without assistance. I smiled at this, nodded and gestured for him to lead the way.
I was talking with Rob later that day about the solemnity of this experience for the girls. It struck us both on reflection just what a vivid impression this must have left on their so plastic minds. From the open planned formulaic and familiar setting of the museum regular, they were now being led down some steep stone steps, with clear instructions to mind their step and hold onto the side rail. They were then faced with a long narrow corridor with one side filled with display cabinets bursting with chronologically classified trinkets and down on the far right a large heavy door that impressed weightily on the intrigued mind as it was hauled wide enough for entry.
Inside the door were walls of ceiling high cabinets and drawers. Andy went straight for a large bottom drawer to the left and fetched out two truly splendid pieces of Bronze Age memorabilia. Turn now to photos 3-7.
Wow! Hopefully these will make it into some kind of prized collection. How generous life seems to be sometimes.
After carefully replacing the large middle bronze aged axes, the awestruck girls and Andy spent the next 10-15 minutes examining drawers full of incredible artifacts. Stone tools, more bronze-ware, casts of skulls from humans found at Box Grove. One drawer was completely dedicated to hand axes, something which sparked a light in both girls as they joyfully told Andy they have one just like this in their classroom, “Yeah, we do, and it’s 5 million years old”, proclaimed Eva. Too sweet.
And so it was, the experience was coming to an end. Andy had also given the girls an idea of how rare it is to find treasures, like those in the drawers, as an archaeologist, but what pleasure was met with these discoveries. Of course both girls at this point asserted to Andy that they both wanted to be archaeologists when they grew up and on the way out of the museum were both already hatching a plan to do some Stone Age research so they could come back to the vault to see those precious drawers again.
It was time now though to say goodbye to Andy, who offered preferential future contacts via his email anytime. He had remembered the last meeting with TMP children two years ago when Owen and Haami had followed an interest in early human migrations. He recalled in detail actually the particular display they were interested in, and I was left in no doubt that we had been struck by a very good piece of fortune making contact with this person’ another exemplar on the list of real people in our society who practice love through their work. It was also a reminder that inspiration was very much reciprocal when it came to the interactions adults have with our Elementary children. While we felt like we were the receivers of a privileged welcome at Brighton Museum, it also felt like, completely unknowingly of course, the girls had given a great deal that morning, and all under the banner of allowing natural development to flourish.
And so via the “you are here” sign opposite the Theatre Royal, the girls found their way back to the bus stop on North Street, and with not unusually hyperbolic statements like “this has been the best school day ever”, they took the bus journey back to TMP, and were notably taken aback as they discovered they were even back in time for garden time, and the promise of digging up some of the wood chip to make some archaeological finds for themselves.
Right, so, not quite what I had in mind when I thought I’d drop you a quick email with a snapshot of Eva and Issabella’s Going Out trip on Thursday, but, I have to say what a fun way to spend an afternoon. Look forward to seeing you all tomorrow hopefully at Stamner.