It’s that time of year when the first emails land in my inbox requesting placements on the History Centre’s popular work experience (WEX) programme.
This year it is a little different – those early requests are arriving, but students are now looking for Virtual WEX!
In my blog from March 2020 – Celebrating Archives – I was eagerly anticipating a year of anniversaries, the highlights of which were to be Salisbury’s 800th birthday and the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. Events were planned, projects finalised, and we had an excuse, though none is ever really needed, to dig out some of our archival treasures that show just how connected Wiltshire is to key moments of national commemoration. And letters from Florence Nightingale would have featured in the work experience programme.
And then… the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. All certainty about future events rapidly disappeared as History Centre staff joined colleagues from across Wiltshire Council in responding to the crisis. While statutory services at the History Centre had to be maintained our usual talks and courses were cancelled; we had to close during lockdowns; our regular jaunts around the county to speak to community groups and history societies ended; and as education officer there were no school visits to plan or deliver, and no work placements to organise.
It was clear we needed to transfer what we could online, and I found myself working with colleagues from Libraries and Leisure to create resources that gave Wiltshire residents virtual opportunities to enjoy heritage, arts, literature and physical activities. The result was the Active Communities page on the Wiltshire Council website – a great resource which will hopefully have a legacy post-pandemic.
I also found myself co-ordinating the History Centre’s online presence. Colleagues, missing out on the daily rhythm of dealing with enquiries and customers, turned their energies to our website and social media platforms. They kept regular users updated and entertained, and engaged with new followers. And the hard work has paid off as we see more users, followers, likes and engagements with our various social media accounts.
Necessity drove us online in 2020 providing many challenges, but now there are opportunities in 2021, opportunities the History Centre wants to exploit. Virtual Work Experience is one of those. There will always be a need for real world, physical engagement with archives and books, photographs, painting and sculpture, artefacts and objects, not to mention being in the audience for a live theatre or musical performance. But while we wait for the time when we can return to in-person talks, courses and classroom sessions we need to make the most of the technology available.
I am working on developing a virtual work experience programme for GCSE and A-level students. Our work placements are always popular and each year we are fully booked, but we are limited in how many students we can take – normally two GCSE students in any given week and a couple of Year 12 A-level students. Geography and public transport also play a part and, while I provide a county-wide heritage education service, WEX students tend to come from Chippenham and the surrounding area.
The plan is to use an online classroom platform to deliver Virtual WEX. This has the potential to significantly increase the number of students the History Centre can reach, extending coverage to the whole of Wiltshire and Swindon, and beyond. I will always champion in-person placements and visits to the History Centre to really get hands-on with historical documents – there is a thrill to seeing and touching a document signed by Charles I or Oliver Cromwell or, having learned about Henry VIII in school, holding the marriage contract between Henry and Jane Seymour. But as an advocate for cultural education, online sessions are a valuable tool in reaching and inspiring young minds. And while students will not be able to handle the documents in a virtual session they will still be able to see them and work with them.
A key aspect of our work placement programme is the breadth of experience students enjoy, not only working with archives and local studies collections, but also learning about the work of the conservators and archaeologists based at the History Centre. It is also satisfying to see the students grow in confidence over the course of their week with us and to hear back from schools about the positive impact the placement has had on the youngsters.
We hope that those who see what we do via an online taster day will be in-person users of our services in the months and years to come. This opening up of access also supports the History Centre’s commitment to inclusion and diversity, not only as part of Wiltshire Council but also within the Archives sector.
WEX 2021 won’t be the same as previous years but we hope a virtual experience will give young people an opportunity to see what enjoyable and rewarding careers can be had in the heritage sector.
Last week we showcased our website and talked about how to continue accessing heritage at home. This blog is a continuation of that theme with a look at just some of the many online offers from our colleagues in heritage, arts and libraries in Wiltshire and across the UK.
For budding family historians, the closure of libraries and archives has made it more difficult to access the necessary documents and records; while there are many records online they are often behind pay-walls. However, in partnership with Ancestry the History Centre can now offer free home access to Wiltshire parish registers and wills. You can find out how to access these records from our archives home page. If you are new to family history there are plenty of free "how to" guides to help you with your research. Head to the History Centre’s own archives pages for free research tools and check out the National Archives research guide on family history. Another online genealogy resource is the Wiltshire site for Online Parish Clerks. The idea behind the project is to assist those who are researching their family history in a specific parish who might otherwise have difficulty accessing information at record offices. Also visit the Wiltshire Family History Society which has downloadable publications. (While the indexes are free, fees do apply to other publications.) Swindon Local Studies Library is able to offer free access to Find My Past for library members but downloads are limited and you do need to join the library. Watch this space for further updates on free resources.
If local history, historic buildings, or aerial photography are your thing then you are spoilt for choice. Combining local history with guided walks is historian John Chandler’s latest publication Salisbury, The History Around Us and he has made this available as a free download from Hob Nob Press. John has revised and expanded his book, which was originally published in 1992, in anticipation of the 800th anniversary celebrations of the founding of Salisbury Cathedral and City. John is a familiar face at the History Centre working on Victoria County History – VCH – volumes for Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, including most recently a volume on Chippenham. He is the author of a significant number of books on the history of the south west and promotes the work of local historians as publisher of Hob Nob Press.
Historic buildings and aerial photography are a feature of Swindon-based Historic England’s searchable online collections. Visit its archive and the home page where there are links to guides helping you explore heritage from the comfort of your own home. Part of the archive contains more than 4 million aerial photos of England, over 95,000 of which are viewable online via a dedicated website – Britain from Above. It is worth registering on this website – it is free – and this will allow you zoom in and explore the aerial photos in detail.
Another searchable database is the Wiltshire Historic Environment Record. This records all archaeological finds in the county and is a great way to discover what is under your house, road or home town. So whether it’s palaeolithic hand axes or Second World War pillboxes explore Wiltshire’s material history on the HER. And if you are interested in how buildings are dated then visit the Wiltshire Buildings Record website. Here you can learn about dendochronology (the study of tree ring growth and how it can be used to date buildings), the Wiltshire farmstead project and much more, including how to contribute to the work of the WBR.
Wiltshire is a county blessed with many wonderful historic houses and gardens, many of which are managed by the National Trust. While these beautiful spaces are currently closed to the public but the National Trust has been busy behind the scenes thinking of fun activities and challenges to carry out in our own homes and gardens. The organisation’s very popular 50 things to do before you're 11¾’ activity list has been adapted to meet the current requirement to stay at home with a selection of activities that can be done in the garden. There are wide ranging suggestions on things to do at home – for all ages – including exploring some of the National Trust’s collections on the theme of spring.
Also on an artistic theme, the Arts in Wiltshire blog has collated a number of online resources to help you take part in and enjoy creative activities at home. The blog is regularly updated so is worth checking out if you are looking for creative activities for yourself or your family. It also contains information for arts practitioners on where to go for help and guidance during this lockdown period.
Reading is hugely important for all ages and Wiltshire Libraries is making sure there is something for everyone available online. Check out Read and Rhyme on the Active Communities web page for information on Rhyme Time readings on Wiltshire libraries Facebook pages, eBooks and eMagazines, and titles for Reading Groups. The Reading Agency has also produced a toolkit to help us all stay connected during isolation, providing ideas on how to keep book groups going virtually, preparing for the Summer Reading Challenge and Reading Well which supports all ages in understanding and managing our health and wellbeing.
Continuing the reading theme, the British Library website is well worth checking out, especially its Discovering Children’s Books pages. These explore the history and rich variety of children’s literature and provide a host of great activities for all the family, from learning how to draw a Gruffalo, to making your own miniature book or even your own flying superhero. For those of you on Twitter you can keep up to date with more initiatives coming out of UK libraries by following #LibrariesFromHome. For those not on social media visit the Libraries Connected webpage.
In the previous blog we spoke about the Know Your Place website for accessing historic maps of Wiltshire and some of its neighboring counties. However, if you require access to nationwide collections then visit the National Library of Scotland maps website which has over 200,000 digital maps available for consultation. As with all new websites, getting used to the lay out and how it all works can take some time, but it does have some very useful orientation videos, which are well worth viewing before you get started.
We can’t finish this blog without a visit to The National Archives which has added some new resources following the nationwide lockdown. The boredom busters section is great for regular or new users and includes podcasts, videos, online exhibitions and more. Also, why not have a go at the online paleography (reading old handwriting) course. It is interactive, fun and will prove useful when you are able to get back into the search room to consult those all-important historic documents.
We hope this finds you all well, whether you are one of our regulars or are new to the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. Engaging with heritage, arts and culture really is a great way to encourage creativity and support wellbeing during these difficult times, so explore the links in this blog and keep an eye out for more material coming your way soon.
Max Parkin, Archivist & Ruth Butler, Heritage Education Officer
Diaries and sketches and maps from the trenches; Tudor plots, pardons and royal machinations; Civil war sieges at old Wardour Castle – these are a few of my favourite things...
At least, these are just a few of the archives I have delved into since joining the History Centre team in May.
It is not merely self-indulgence that finds me exploring the strong rooms and miles of shelving housing historic documents – it is work. Really, it is. I am actually researching and preparing sessions for schools.
I am privileged to be the centre’s new Heritage Education Officer – taking over from Laurel Miller – which gives me access to all areas and the opportunity to work with the incredible team of archivists, local studies staff, archaeologists and conservators who occupy this building. (The collective knowledge of this team is phenomenal – and it’s all here on your doorstep, ready to be used.)
Working with primary sources and discovering the stories of people involved in our county’s history is exciting and my pleasant task is to share that excitement and enthusiasm with young people who visit the centre as part of a school group or community project. I also work with other heritage and arts educators around Wiltshire, promoting learning outside the classroom
Our education programme caters to all ages and as well as workshops held at the History Centre I also travel to schools and community groups to deliver outreach sessions.
The First World War Centenary is an area of particular personal interest and expertise, and I am delighted to be working with the county’s Wiltshire at War project which has launched two travelling exhibitions, with another three planned.