How do you present things to children like the ‘Boudiccan revolt’ and the massacres of colonists that took place at Colchester and London in AD 60 – and can it ever be got right? Given we have two written accounts (by Tacitus and, later, Cassius Dio), can we ignore them? Dio pulled no punches in recounting hideous atrocities being carried out on Roman citizen women – their breasts were cut off and sewn to their mouths, and their bodies skewered lengthways – but are these images ‘suitable’ for children?
And already - see? - the subject is fetishised. But remove those accounts, and knowledge and images of annihilation and casualties on all 'sides', and the subject becomes sanitised.
To how much of the ‘truth’ about violence should children be exposed – and whose truth would that be? Should these elements of the past be kept remote from children, and this audience be regarded as vulnerable consumers; or should they be presented with immersive sights, sounds and hands-on displays where they help to produce their own experiences? Or something else?
I’ve been wondering about this since I visited Colchester Castle Museum last week. Impressive though the Norman castle itself is, I was primarily interested in the Roman artefacts (many of which are 'celebrity objects', eg the gladiator pot), but became a tad fixated on a ‘push button to vote’ stand – part of the school trail - which wanted to know, ‘Do you think that Boudica was right to destroy Colchester?’ (It was broken and stuck on 'Yes' - I swear I didn't touch it!)
I think everyone understands why there's a fair bit of focus on the Boudiccan revolt at Colchester Castle Museum. It’s an instructive example, I think, of how there’s a fine line to tread, especially with a younger audience, between realism and animated sanitised adventure, especially when the 'realism' is predicated on not-100%-reliable ancient sources steeped in their own agendas.
The display asking ‘Do you think that Boudica was right ...?' seems on some level to trivialise the slaughter; and, because there are some really good attempts in this museum to give the displays historical coherence and to contextualise the viewing of artefacts and representations, it seems out of place. Is this a rather unsubtle way of asking children to decide whether they see Boudicca as a freedom fighter or a terrorist? But why? What’s the point? Do hands-on exhibits like this really increase children’s understanding of the complexities around ethics and the politics and economics of the past, especially the use of violence? Or do such displays tend to turn a historical event into a movie-like representation of a good story?
There’s a great deal of work published now about children’s troubled and troubling relationships with violence and violent imagery. It is understood that children can become anxious and distressed by violence. It is also understood that children can become desensitised to violent images. In a world of Grand Theft Auto, educators and policy makers are desperately trying to awaken children’s cognitive skills in these areas – in other words, finally to tackle the problems head on – and teach children to recognise for themselves what is real and not real, and what is ‘good real life’ and ‘bad real life’.
There's equally a large corpus of publications in the world of museology and museum practice & theory around presentations of war and conflict as part of exhibitions and permanent collections. The perceptions of children are increasingly being recognised as significant, and museums as places of education which can draw children away from violence and into contemplation. In a collective endeavour (edited by Wolfgang Muchitsch) titled Does War Belong in Museums?, for example, many questions are posed:
"Presentations of war and violence in museums generally oscillate between the fascination of terror and its instruments and the didactic urge to explain violence and, by analysing it, make it easier to handle and prevent. The museums concerned also have to face up to these basic issues about the social and institutional handling of war and violence. Does war really belong in museums? And if it does, what objectives and means are involved? Can museums avoid trivializing and aestheticising war, transforming violence, injury, death and trauma into tourist sights? What images of shock or identification does one generate – and what images would be desirable?"
These questions matter a great deal when applied to a young audience. It's a rare museum that doesn't at some point have to deal with the issue of exhibiting topics of conflict and violence, knowing that school parties will visit.
In his introduction to his edited volume, Muchitsch makes the point that museums professionals have great responsibilities:
"How can they avoid trivializing or aestheticizing war? How can they avoid ... transforming violence, injury, death and trauma into main tourist attractions? What images of consternation, shock and horror do they generate? What can they make accessible in terms of understanding the dialectic of friend and foe? Do they frighten off, warn, ponder, shock, emotionally manipulate, compare, historicize and/or promote learning?"
I'm not entirely sure that many of the cacophonously sound-tracked, illuminated and illustrated depictions of conflict and violence that I've encountered over the years, from Masada to the Boudiccan revolt in Colchester, are fully thought through in this regard. I do think that something a little more ambitious and reflective could be attempted. Children can be taught to examine national narratives of war and resistence, and not be forced to become part of them through passive or remote participation, observation and consumption.
On a final note, something else struck me about Colchester Castle, and it's not unique to this museum - it's the lack of representation of children in very many of its reconstruction drawings. We need to see more faces of children in the depictions of farms, settlements, and towns, and as part of processes and narratives. Children were important economic and cultural agents in the past, and are an important part of today's museum audiences. If the role of a museum is to fire imaginations, and to initiate internal and external discourse(s), children need a presence in those images - and a presence which is meaningful and goes beyond token child onlooker.
Sources and acknowledgements: Colchester Castle Museum; Tacitus Annals, XIV; Cassius Dio Historia Romano, LXII; Wolfgang Muchitsch (ed) 2013 Does War Belong in Museums? The representation of violence in exhibitions; Kevin Walsh 1992 The Representation of the Past; Graham Webster 1978 Boudica – the British Revolt against Rome AD 60; Michael Wood 1981 Chapter 1 ‘Boadicea’ in In Search of the Dark Ages.