Going Underground

Hello, friends!

This is Tim reporting from Ipswich for a change. I’m here helping them organise Ipswich Museum’s upcoming Harry Potter Book Night. Very exciting!

Despite the different town, this week I’d like to tell you about the school tours at Colchester Castle…

The Castle run two different tours for visiting school groups: ‘Castles as Homes’, which includes a trip up the great stairs to the roof and ‘Celts and Romans’, which takes place in the Roman foundations. Although both of these areas can be accessed during daily guided tours, they are not places that can be seen as part of a visitor’s standard entry.

So far, I have focussed on ‘Celts and Romans’, as I spend most of my time in the Castle on the upper gallery (where the collections from that period are housed). Having watched every member of Visitor Services perform a schools tour at least once, I can safely say that everyone has their own style. So, when it came to me taking a group of 30  children down to the vaults, I wondered what my style would turn out to be! Having done two tours so far, I try to incorporate the best elements and techniques I have seen, but in the end I think the best advice I received (from more-or-less everybody) was to be myself.

Everyone must convey the same information and tell the same story. Some people are natural storytellers who can keep children totally absorbed without lifting a finger, others are like a post-MTV Generation whirlwind, flying around the space, not giving even the shortest attention-span a chance to wander. Some make it dramatic, others make it funny. Without a doubt though, the universally successful tactic they all employ is to involve the children. Ask them questions. It’s incredible the amount some already know and how much better they retain the information when it isn’t all just handed to them.

The tour begins by the well at the entrance to the Castle. We then descend the steps to the vaults (which conveniently add up to the amount of years “back in time” we go if you multiply their number by 100).

As you can see from the pictures, we have to be incredibly careful of bumping our heads on the very low stone arches! In the first room we talk about the Iron Age Britons and why the Romans decided to take over the country. After telling them about the Temple of Claudius, we ask the children to look at the shape of the room they are in. We then un-latch the bottom of the model temple, revealing a cutaway of the foundations. Some of the children instantly understand, some take a minute more, but their faces when they work out that they’re sitting in the Roman temple foundations is one of the highlights of every tour for me.

Next, we talk about how the temple was built (which occasionally involves “cutting off” a teacher’s head as a warning to the other “slaves”) and how they would feel if they were treated this way. These feelings of discontent lead nicely onto the final part of the story tour: Boudica’s rebellion.

iron-age-britonIt’s really fun and rewarding doing the tours. It is especially gratifying when you later see the same group exploring the Castle and recognise elements from the story. Often, families I speak to on the galleries have had their trip instigated by a son or daughter who came with their school and wanted to share the experience with their family. I cannot wait to do more tours, though it may be a while before I’m brave/ knowledgeable enough to “storm the Castle” with the really young children doing ‘Castles as Homes’!

Until next time, this is Tim signing off.


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