Wednesday saw the culmination of an education project I’ve been helping with since this time last year, when it was put forward as a basic concept proposed by the actor Colin McFarlane. Over the last twelve months, he’s assembled a team of experts to create a project called ‘Making History’, aimed at giving schoolchildren from the age of 7 upwards the chance to explore their personal background. The question ‘who am I’ allows them to do some basic genealogy – but includes everyone, because it allows children who have overseas roots to explore their culture too; and they film the process, creating video diaries or, in the case of some of the older age groups, actual films about their discoveries.
The resources put into this were mainly voluntary, given there was very little funding available. Both Ancestry and Find My Past gave access to their collections to the 5 schools that were involved, whilst My Heritage provided the technology for them to upload their family trees and stories. We created an online resource where the children could download week by week work schedules about talking to their family, setting their research goals, working with the online collections, and then broadening out their research. Support was also received from the Society of Genealogists, as well as various higher education institutions that helped with the filming and analysis. High profile celebrities such as Jim Broadbent and Miriam Margolyes gave their time to visit the children as they worked.
The pilot ended this week with a screening of the finished projects at the British Film Institute – and the results were stunning. Many were joyful, celebrating incredible ancestors who had risen to prominence; others brought unfamiliar cultural experiences from overseas to a wider audience. Two films moved many of the adults to tears. One explored his grandfather’s lost childhood when sent to Canada by Barnados, and why he never talked about his experiences; whereas the other was a personal account of the Irish Troubles, set against the wider diaspora, via an interview with his father who recalls some of the violent clashes. It is a raw, emotional and incredibly powerful piece of film making – as good as, if not better, than some of the scenes we’ve become accustomed to on Who Do You Think You Are.
Colin assures me the project will now look to become a national programme, acting as a curriculum support activity that encourages students to personalise the past by linking national events to their family’s experiences. We also want to introduce a second element, ‘Where Am I’, to allow students who don’t want to, or can’t, do genealogy to explore the area and community where they live.
This leaves me very little space to talk about the other event I attended, the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment think tank on sustainable environments. Why was I there? Good question; but it was really important to push the agenda for community engagement based on personal heritage, allowing people to celebrate their backgrounds and thus connect with the built environment in which they live.
Next week, I’ll talk a bit about some of the plans for 2012 that are shaping up to make it a very exciting year.