In the last blog I posted, I talked about ways of using art in learning language and culture. The use of visual images in language education has, of course, a long history, but it has been given an added boost by the Web. Gone, for most teachers, are the days spent cutting images from magazines and pasting them onto card, or even laminating favourites for use in the classroom. Now we choose a topic – e.g. ‘intercultural explorer’ – log onto Google Images and pick from the hundreds of images that come up.
There is still a place for the physical encounter, though, and ‘blended learning’ is a convenient phrase that suggests the dynamic interaction of web-based material and physical experience. To move from images to objects, local museums are, of course, spaces that are designed for encounters with artefacts that, in some way, represent our own and other cultures. Museums are also contested spaces, especially those in countries that acquired their objects in the process of colonisation or conquest. The British Museum, for example, is in an extended dispute with the Greek government over the ownership of the so-called ‘Elgin Marbles’, which were removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century.
In some ways, then, the British Museum’s joint project with the BBC to put online 100 of the objects in its collections that tell the story of the world can be seen, in part, as an attempt to justify its continued curatorship of diverse cultural artefacts by giving them back to the world in a virtual form. The project also fulfils those institutions’ public service role by offering the objects as a tactile (though digitised) history of diverse civilisations.
A blended learning approach to using this resource might combine classroom learning with a visit to a local museum after hours. The teacher chooses an object from the British Museum’s digital collection and invites the learners to consider its cultural significance. Among my own personal favourites are the Lewis Chessmen, a group of 12th century chess pieces, carved from bone, found on a beach on the Scottish island in 1831. They were probably carved in Norway.
The chessmen are beautiful to look at and can be used simply to elicit descriptive language: a grumpy queen sits, resting her head on her hand, staring into space with wide eyes. What is she thinking? But they can also be used to explore the way leisure activities have travelled across cultures and times: chess is thought to have originated in India, before being taken up by the Muslim world and disseminated through trade links in the mediaeval world. What sequence of events led to the chessmen being carved by Vikings in Norway, shipped to Scotland, and buried on a beach?
We can also consider the meanings of chess in today’s world. It is a game, arguably, associated with the intellect and civilized values – perhaps not the qualities we associated immediately with Vikings. We can consider what the games we play tell us about our own civilization and values – are there chess clubs in the local community? What do the chess pieces look like – are the king, queen, bishops and knights abstract tokens, or do they represent actual characters? Where were the pieces manufactured?
What other games are played by learners – does anyone participate in other games: card games, online games or role-playing games? Do these games cut across the cultural divides of age, gender, nationality? Does someone who plays chess also play Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft? If so, do they see the activities as related – or different?
The classroom discussion can then lead to preparation for the museum visit. Learners can be encouraged to visit a local museum in pairs or small groups, choose an object and think about it. The teacher can guide them through questions to ask; for example:
• What kind of culture does the object represent – local or global?
• How did the museum acquire the object?
• What kind of behaviour does it represent: a sacred ritual, working life, domestic chores, leisure activities, political organization, etc?
• How was the object produced – individual craftsmanship or mass production?
• Why is it on display? In its original setting, would it have had any special significance, or would it have been an everyday object?
• How, if at all, does the object relate to the other objects, displayed around it?
• Talk to some of the other museum visitors – what is their opinion of the object you have chosen?
• How would you place the object in your own ‘history of the world’?
The learners can then report to the class on their visit and their choice of object.
In an article on ‘anthropological poetry’, published in the proceedings of a conference held in Leeds in 2001, Charles Gullick quotes from James Fenton’s poem about visiting the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Fenton’s poem sums up the learning goals involved in ‘reading’ museum exhibits:
As a dusty semiologist, equipped to unravel
The seven components of that witch’s curse
Or the syntax of the mutilated teeth. Go
In groups to giggle at curious finds.
I have been talking to colleagues here in Sao Paulo in the past week of the challenges of developing multiliteracies amongst students in Brazilian public schools. Teaching learners to parse ‘the syntax of the mutilated teeth’ is a colourful way of expressing the task that intercultural language teachers face.
British Museum and BBC: A History of the World in 100 Objects: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/LcdERPxmQ_a2npYstOwVkA
Fenton, James (1984). The Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. Newsletter (Museum Ethnographers Group), (16), 37-40. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40838739?uid=3737664&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21102055055343
Gullick, Charles JMR (2001). ‘Artifacts and Mentifacts of Alterity’, in Poetics and Praxis of Languages and Intercultural Communication. Edited by David Killick, Margaret Parry and Alison Phipps. Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan University, pp. 185-201