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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

English Heritage: Dover Castle and Kenilworth Castle

Castles are ten a penny in Britain. Many are ruined. Many are extremely ruined (i.e. piles of rubble that defy all but the most active imaginations) Some are faked (in Scotland, Castle Eilean Donan, star of movies including Highlander and Made of Honor, was rebuilt from rubble in 1932) Many more were converted to country houses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and barely betray their fortified origins.

The two most notable castles that Alec, my kid assistant, and I visited on our recent six-week stay in the UK were at Kenilworth and Dover, both of them owned by English Heritage, a government agency whose superb and energetic stewardship of historic sites defies the conventional wisdom about government-run enterprises.

I can't give a complete review of Dover Castle for the simple reason that we toured very little of it: It's massive, plus we were there to participate in a day of Roman-themed activities, staged by external groups of volunteers. Alec reveled in the displays of horse-chariots and weaponry, but most of all, he and hordes of other kids loved pretending to be Roman soldiers, under the direction of a man in centurion kit who bossed them about like a sergeant-major from a British sitcom. In the process, they learned how to form a tortoise, which I imagine might one day prove a useful skill.

Personally, I can't stand military re-enactments: A little goes a long way for me. But having an eight-year-old son has forced me to concede defeat on this score. Needless to say, he loves that stuff.

However, he also loved the opportunity to make a moulded clay medallion, which we somehow managed to keep intact over six weeks of travel. The one surprise was that he was completely turned off by the demonstration of Roman medicine: A man with a very convincing and revolting wound to his arm was "treated" by a volunteer playing a medic, who first gave a very long and tedious talk on Roman medicine. Alec was completely grossed out by the presentation, as were several other kids. As someone who has not been above doing such a presentation herself (at TimeShop, we demonstrated medieval surgery), I have come to the conclusion that we all overestimate kids' enthusiasm for grossness. As the success of the Horrible Histories book series shows, kids love reading about gross stuff in history. But seeing it? Another story.

Kenilworth Castle was a huge, glorious ruin. Alec, who normally is game to listen to museum audio tours, and especially to kids' audio tours, resisted most of my attempts to help him learn anything about the place. He wanted to rampage around with his sword, and rampage he did. English Heritage publishes colorful and (wisely) brief children's guides, which all draw on the same template. Until the visit to Kenilworth, I had had no reason to question this approach. But Alec's response gave me pause.

Fortunately, I fell into conversation with a very impressive young English Heritage employee. I've been thinking about that conversation ever since. She said that the Kenilworth staff had noticed the same thing: The kids simply love to run around and use their imaginations. To the chagrin of teachers and parents, they ask about ghosts. She has been reading about the role of folklore in kids' development, and is increasingly convinced that it's important to let kids enjoy the Castle on their own terms. I am too.
In recent years, our productivity-obsessed culture has created an education system that's straight out of Dickens's Hard Times. It's all about rat races and hoop-jumping, about credentials and tests. The result is that we are ruining the quality of our children's lives, now and for their futures, by ignoring their creativity. In a child's mind, fantasy and reality blend in ways that are inspiring and exciting, and create a seedbed for their future interest in history. Castles are great places in which to discover and embrace this fact.
Kenilworth Castle made me rethink English Heritage's "branding" approach, which has led to the creation of a matched series of leaflets for children visiting all its properties. I think the time is ripe to encourage bottom-up interpretation, to allow the staff at each property full latitude to use their creativity and enthusiasm to craft interpretations that speak to children's emotional as well as intellectual responses. From what I could gather from the staff member I met, English Heritage does grant a fair amount of latitude, but I couldn't help noticing how interpretive materials (from signs to museum to audio tours) push kids in a utilitarian direction. That said, there's nothing wrong with parents and teachers simply giving kids plenty of time to run free.
By the way, Alec loved the chance to brush up his medieval swordsmanship, too.

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