Emily Anderson, Head of History, reflects on how the pandemic has thrown the department’s thinking about place into relief, and how this is manifest in the History classroom and in inter-disciplinary thinking.
Let’s observe, Attenborough style, the historian at work. What comes to mind as you peer tentatively into your imagination, careful not to disturb? I would be certain that, to some extent, you would gravitate towards a library, or an archive, and rightly so. For this is where the historian finds their treasure, following lead upon lead to synthesise their research into new understanding, often of people and events far removed from our own experience. Whilst the primary location for our WHS historians is the classroom rather than the archive or library (with a healthy engagement with the latter, of course), the principle remains; understanding emerges through study of the sources.
And yet, how much poorer our understanding would be if we stayed in the archive. Venture outside, and our surroundings become another historical source, there to challenge and broaden our thinking. The potential of this has long inspired me: my Master’s dissertation in 2014 considered how far the political context of the debates over Home Rule in Ireland influenced the construction of Belfast City Hall, building on both an element of my undergraduate study but also my teaching at A Level at the time. Recently, I have felt the draw towards such lines of enquiry particularly keenly, as our world has shrunk due to the pandemic and the opportunities normally available to me and my department to explore the world for ourselves and, crucially, share this with our students on trips (always a wonderful experience) have not been available. Talking with family, friends and colleagues, I know that we are not alone in this.
Within the curriculum
We can, however, still incorporate the study of places into our curriculum. At A Level, we teach a study of the British Empire from c1857-1967. It is, of course, a very wide-ranging unit in terms of geographical reach and this is one of the things which drew us to it; the opportunity, not widely available at A Level, to study global history. The uniting focus of the course is Britain, but to only study the impact and debate from this perspective would be a severe dereliction of our duty as historians. The impact of the European empires on the physical landscape of periphery and metropole alike is striking – the more you look, the more you see and traditional narratives are disrupted. In our city, Notting Hill, now a by-word for the celebration of multi-culturalism, has become so because of migration from what was the Empire. To wander the streets and museums of South Kensington is to experience, to my mind, a showcase of the imperial project. Reading the testimonies of those involved in the Morant Bay uprising in Jamaica, and coupling these with the incredible sense of place evoked by David Olusoga in his documentary work, means that even sites of memory far away and currently inaccessible to us can be explored in the classroom.
At GCSE, our course looks at Berlin during the Cold War. I find the city both wonderfully vibrant and hauntingly evocative, and love taking our students there to experience it for themselves. It is the unexpected, small-scale artefacts that intrigue the most – the oversize floodlight which lit up the approach to the Berlin Wall, still on the front of an apartment block though the Wall is long gone; the first memorial to the Holocaust, barely registered by those who pass it in the suburb of Schöneberg; the American-style cinema built for the occupying troops but more at home in the Midwest. The questions students ask both on such trips and back in the classroom show how such experiences enable them to see the history they study in new ways. Excitingly, our new GCSE, which the current Y9s will study from September, gives us the opportunity to conduct a study of Spitalfields, an area shaped and enriched by the diverse communities which have settled there. Classroom and in-situ enquiry will work together to bring our understanding to life.
At Key Stage Three, we are embarking on a total overhaul of our curriculum. This gives us the exciting opportunity to reconsider how we incorporate our surroundings into historical study, and how we can use trips to their best advantage to complement it. Inspiration has abounded – one of the upsides of the past year has been the extraordinary availability of online seminars and training. We have been trialling some new enquiries with Year 9, including ‘What secrets of the past are hidden within the walls of a house?’, which uses the BBC programme and book ‘A House Through Time’ as a starting point for a study of social change in Liverpool in the 19th and 20th centuries. Again, we have found ourselves drawing on a place – here a home – to focus and enrich our historical thinking.
An interest in place, in all its complexities, is something we share with our colleagues and friends in Geography. You will have seen Dr Stephanie Harel’s article in October on this blog and this sparked thinking about how we could collaborate to share expertise and experience and develop understanding. The Y12 History and Geography students participated in an initial exploration of themes around place during the STEAM+ event in November, and led the first joint session of Geog On, History Girls and Politics Society, sharing what they’d discussed. We are continuing our joint meetings this term.
I hope that this has given you some insight into an aspect of our current thinking as a department. We would love the wider community to be part of the conversation about our curriculum. Please do get in touch if you would like to via email or Twitter.
Further reading/ideas – along with the material referenced in the post
There are some wonderful walking tours of London which I would thoroughly recommend – some are online at the moment. Try www.open-city.org.uk, https://sixinthecity.co.uk/ and https://www.womenonthewalk.co.uk/women-on-the-march.
Brian Ladd’s ‘The Ghosts of Berlin’ – a wonderful reflection on this most fascinating of cities.
‘The Companion Guide to…’ series – for in-depth itineraries around different cities and countries.
 P. Gopal, Insurgent Empire, London, Verso, 2019; Black and British: A Forgotten History, D. Olusoga, BBC, 2016
 A House Through Time, D. Olusoga, BBC, 2018; D. Olusoga and M. Backe-Hansen, A House Through Time, London, Picador, 2020
 With thanks to Holly Beckwith for masterminding and planning this enquiry