An electrified candlestick in the Hall at Lotherton.
As the project comes to an end, we are now ready to unveil the new history of electricity house trails we have produced for Standen and for Lotherton Hall. These are available to view and to save on our Downloads page, along with a couple of other documents detailing our resources . These trails have been designed to fit with existing trails used in each house, using templates supplied by the houses. We are in the process of producing a one-off print run for the houses, which we will send to them, and after that each house will be able to print more as needed.
Each trail gives visitors an idea of the kinds of electrical artefacts and systems present in the house – such as the electrified candlestick at Lotherton Hall, pictured left, and the pressels at Standen, below. When developing these, it was important for us to get input from house volunteers and guides, as they know best the kinds of things visitors want to know, and the questions they ask, and will be the first point of contact if visitors want to know more about content of the trails. To get this feedback I visited each house to present early drafts of the trails, and discussed the content with guides and volunteers. Although with limited space it was not possible to incorporate all suggestions into the finished drafts, it was very useful to run these early versions past the people who interact with visitors on a day-to-day basis.
One useful discussion we had was how much technical detail ought to be included. There are visitors who appreciate this information – I have met several current or former electrical engineers at various houses over the course of this project myself. However, we agreed that on the whole visitors do not come for, or expect, electrical history, and so the interpretative content should focus on the social history, with a few details about the technical aspects of the system for those who want this information. The trails therefore contain a lot of social history content from Professor Gooday’s and Dr. Harrison-Moore’s work as it applies to each of the houses, for example emphasising the significance of class and gender in people’s responses to electrical technologies. Each makes reference to nineteenth-century fears about electrical accidents, the design of electrical fittings, and the use of electricity for communication within the house.
Pressels: electric buttons on cords, hanging behind the bed in the North Bedroom at Standen.
In addition to these full trails we have also produced a template schools’ resource for Lotherton Hall – a shorter trail with activities – and are also producing a children’s trail for Standen. The challenge for these resources was to distil some key points out of the research and to convey them in a way which would appeal to a young person moving around the house. As with most of the work we have produced as part of this project, the key was to focus on the human stories and relatable imagery, such as ladies worried that the bright electric light would be bad for their skin, or unreliable lights going out in the middle of a meal, and where possible to include children or young people – such as the Beale children playing billiards by electric light in the evenings. Ultimately I believe it is stories like these that are the reason why this research lends itself so well to the various interpretative resources we have produced over the past year.
Over the past month I have visited two local schools, Addingham and Springbank, to test our online interactive with Year 4 and Year 6 classes. “Is it a mystery game?” I was asked by one pupil as I was in the process of setting it up on the computers prior to the session. I replied that it was an educational game, which possibly didn’t quite imply the excitement they were anticipating, but nevertheless the responses to the resource have been very positive and encouraging, from pupils and teachers alike.
Over the different sessions I experimented with a few different ways of using the interactive in the classroom. In each case I began by leading the interactive from the front of the class, starting with Cragside and asking the pupils which rooms they wanted to explore (interestingly, in each session they wanted to start with the Library). In each room I opened the hotspot image and asked them the question before playing the associated video. I also wanted to see how the pupils used the interactive on their own, so depending on the session I then let them go through either the second and third or just the third house on their own. Unfortunately, at Addingham we noticed that when a whole class was trying to use the resource at once this slowed things down, and there were problems loading the videos. It also led in some cases to pupils, when left to their own devices, clicking through to the video content without being able to see the pictures of the rooms or the associated questions which the videos then answered.
Before my visit to Springbank, therefore, we implemented a fix aimed at addressing this, which was successful in that it slowed down the loading of the content in order to ensure that it would be visible before the video content would be played. With Springbank pupils, after going through the first house together, I asked a group of eight of them to work on the interactive at the back of the class, independently of the rest. They worked as three pairs at three computers, and two single pupils with a computer each – all had headphones for the videos. Meanwhile, I chose two volunteers from the rest of the class to lead the pupils through the next house, getting the class consensus on which rooms to visit, asking the hotspot questions and playing the videos. This worked very well and demonstrated how the interactive can be employed in the classroom as a peer-led learning exercise.
The pupils working on their own or in pairs at the back were able to use the interactive without the problems of the videos not loading properly, as we had previously seen at Addingham. The main feedback I received from this ‘focus group’ of pupils was that they wanted there to be more content: more rooms to explore, and more to see in each room. Unfortunately we’ve been limited by time and money on this project, so we stuck to four rooms for each of the three houses, with one hotspot and video in each, but I see this as a very positive response indicating that they were interested in and engaging constructively with the content.
The interactive provides a good catalyst to start discussions about a range of topics, from Victorian class and gender divides – and the contrasts and similarities with the present day – to the use of renewable energy through discussions of hydroelectricity at Cragside, to our own attitudes towards new, cutting edge technologies, to the questions and thought processes involved in designing and making everyday items. For example, Year 4 at Springbank picked up in particular on how posh Mr Grey, the butler at Cragside, sounded. “He’s like a robot!” they happily told me. This provided a perfect opportunity to discuss why it was appropriate that Mr Grey, working as he did for Lord Armstrong, conducted himself in a certain manner.
The quiz at the end of the interactive also provided an opportunity for the pupils to think about their knowledge of electrical topics covered in the KS2 curriculum. There are six multiple choice questions, each one relating to a circuit component with which the KS2 curriculum requires pupils to be familiar: wire, batteries, switches, lightbulbs, buzzers and motors. The questions draw on materials covered in the video content from the three houses, touching on scientific, historical and design aspects of the use of domestic electricity. In all cases I led this as an activity from the front of the class, asking questions, getting the pupils’ answers, and moving through the quiz. In the feedback, this was the aspect of the interactive which the Year 4 pupils said they found to be the most challenging, but as we want the resource to be useful for Year 6 as well I don’t think this is a problem; they did very well regardless.
The feedback from pupils indicates that the interactive encouraged them to think about how people used electricity in the past, and what different opinions they had. To evaluate each session I asked the pupils to write down, on different coloured post-it notes: one thing they had learnt, one thing they found difficult, and what they wanted to learn next. The answers demonstrated an encouraging level of understanding and enthusiasm. A common response to the first question – what they felt they had learnt – was hydroelectricity, and also the period that people first starting using electricity in the home, including the fact that not many people had electricity at this time. The interactive thus effectively introduces pupils to the idea of hydroelectricity, and also helps them to historicise the development of electrical technologies. Other key points which pupils picked up on were that early electricity was not always reliable, and that maids were often scared of electricity.
There were a few warning signs here, though, and potential misunderstandings will be highlighted in our teachers’ resource to accompany the interactive. For example, a lot of pupils found the explanation of the cloisonné lamp at Cragside tricky, and whilst this is a useful tool for discussing several topics – for example conductors and insulators, how mercury is an unusual metal, and electrical safety – it is important to be careful in order to avoid some of the misconceptions which are evident from the feedback, for example that mercury was used to power lamps, or that the method of the electrification of Cragside’s cloisonné lamps was common at the time. Teachers may wish to use the animation of the cloisonné lamp we have produced for Cragside alongside the interactive to help explain this.
Regarding what they wanted to know next, pupils had a wide range of suggestions, from how electricity was used on the Titanic to the uses of electricity in sport. Common questions were how electricity is generated, who the first person to use or discover it was, and aspects of social history, for example asking about the lives of children and servants, and what adults did in their spare time. Some asked some very insightful questions, such as why people needed electricity when they had candles, and what electricity is going to be like in the future. These responses indicate that the interactive serves to fuel interest in Victorian history, and also in how electricity works and the ways in which it is used in our everyday lives. Teachers can therefore use our interactive as a starting point for such discussions, and then go on to explore some of these other science or history topics in more depth.
The interactive is now live, and can be viewed here.
As the project draws to a close we are polishing up our outputs ready for final delivery. One of the outputs which we are producing for Cragside is a set of three bespoke educational animations to help volunteers to explain Cragside’s electrical heritage to visitors. The animations have been produced by our undergraduate animation intern, Alex, and will be used to demonstrate how Lord Armstrong employed and experimented with electricity at Cragside, and how he used the surrounding landscape to generate hydroelectricity to light his house – the first private house to do so.
Of the three animations, one illustrates how the house’s iconic cloisonné lamps were originally electrified in December 1880. This was a little unusual and can be hard to explain. The only source we have is a letter Armstrong wrote to the Engineer in January 1881, in which he explained that the lamps could be switched off or on by picking them up and putting them down again. As this was a very experimental period in the history of electrification, before switches were readily available, this was accomplished using a dish of mercury.
A wire ran down from the bulb at the top of the vase, and dipped into the mercury. The dish was set in the centre of a metal disc connected to two wires: one carrying current to the bulb, and the other being the return wire for the circuit. The metal body of the vase itself – copper – served to return the current back to the return wire. Thus, when the vase was placed on the metal disc and the wire from the bulb dipped into the dish of mercury the circuit was completed and the bulb was lit. Lifting the vase from the metal disc would have switched the light off. As the cloisonne vases were coated entirely in enamel it is likely that this would have provided sufficient insulation for the vases to have been moved by hand. The animation provides volunteers with a very visual way of explaining this process.
The second animation is of the arc light which used to hang in the Picture Gallery at Cragside between c1878 and 1880 – when Armstrong and Joseph Swan installed Swan’s bulbs. This can no longer be seen at the property, but the animation gives an idea of how it worked – including the noise of operating it. The animation demonstrates how early arc lights comprised two vertical rods of carbon in an electrical circuit, separated by a gap. The current jumped across the gap, creating a bright arc. The distance between the two rods needed to be carefully regulated: if it was too small, the arc would correspondingly be too small to generate sufficient light. If the gap was too wide, the current would not be able to arc across it. However, as the rods burned away with use it was important to have a mechanism which automatically moved the rods to keep the gap the same size as the rods became shorter. Arc lights were more commonly used for outdoor lighting, and not many people experimented with bringing them inside to illuminate their rooms. This, alongside the cloisonne animation, therefore helps to highlight Armstrong’s willingness to experiment and innovate.
The final animation shows how the hydroelectric system at Cragside worked, with water running down the hill from a man-made lake at the top, and operating a dynamo in the Power House – a separate building containing the dynamos and the batteries, which stored excess electrical charge for periods of high demand. When more current was required to light more rooms, the butler used a telephone to ring down to the Power House to request more power. The animation shows this simply as the movement of a lever: this operation might have been performed by switching resistance coils out of the circuit (thus decreasing the resistance and effectively making more current available for the lights in the house), or by switching the batteries into the circuit. After this happens in the animation we see more lights coming on in the house, represented by the cloisonné lamp in the Library, until it is entirely illuminated.
Volunteers will have these animations on tablets, and will be able to use them as explanatory tools when discussing the history of electricity at the property with visitors. The role of volunteers in providing explanatory interpretative content is very important at Cragside, as at many other country houses. When discussing how the project could deliver outputs which would best benefit Cragside, representatives of the house were keen to produce something which emphasised the role of volunteers, rather than written interpretative content such as panels or trails.
When drawing up the storyboards for each of the three animations, therefore, Alex and I consulted with Cragside staff in order ensure that the content was accurate and suitable for this purpose: the animations needed to be short – concise and focused without distracting elements – and visual, without relying on text. The animations will be in use at Cragside in the next month, and will also be available to view online.
[Edit, 4/7/16 – This post now contains final versions of all three of the animations. Please also see our Downloads page for further supporting information on these animations.]
On Monday 30 November Abigail Harrison-Moore and I will be joining a year 6 class (age 10-11) for a lesson to teach them about our work and test our educational materials. This is the age group at which we are aiming our online digital interactive, and as one of their science topics this year is electricity, this will give us an opportunity to integrate elements of history and art and design into their learning.
The design of our interactive focuses around floor plans of each of our three partner houses. At the beginning of the interactive, pupils will see a screen with pictures of each house, and will be prompted to move through the sections (levels) of the interactive which correspond to each of the houses in the order in which the houses were electrified (Cragside first, then Standen, as one of the first houses in the country to be built with electricity from the beginning, and finally Lotherton Hall, electrified in 1903).
They will be able to select the first, Cragside, and on doing so will see a simplified floor plan of the house and a video introducing them to the guide character for the house. These guide characters, one for each house, will appear in videos throughout each house‘s section, or level, explaining content about the history of electricity. The guide characters, a butler for Cragside, the lady of the house, Mrs. Beale, for Standen, and a maid for Lotherton, will be played by drama students working on the Electrified musical. They will be filmed using green screen techniques and inserted into footage from each of the three houses.
Within the floor plan of each house will be four clickable rooms which pupils can select, in no set order. On selecting a room a large, wide angle photograph of the interior of the room will be displayed, and pupils will look for a hotspot within the picture. This will highlight an object in the room of electrical significance, and hovering over the hotspot will open a larger picture of the object accompanied by a question. Clicking on the question will then open a short video – 60 seconds – in which the guide character will answer the question and provide more information about the object or system to which it relates.
The questions, and their corresponding answers, will be focused around a different theme for each house. For Cragside, the theme will be science and technology; pupils will be encouraged to think about how objects and systems worked within the house, and will be introduced to circuit diagram symbols. This ties the interactive into the KS2 science curriculum. In Standen, the theme is aesthetics. One of the key novelties at Standen is the fact that electricity was built into the plans from the beginning, and thus light fittings were designed and selected iteratively to fit with the rest of the interior décor. Pupils will be prompted to consider how materials were chosen for this, and how electric lighting changed the look of a room. Lotherton represents a broader category of houses which adopted electricity slightly later, at the turn of the twentieth-century, and the theme of the questions and answers will be the social history of electricity: what different people thought of it depending on age, class and gender.
The rooms have been selected to give a range of masculine and feminine rooms – such as Colonel Gascoigne‘s Medal Room or office at Lotherton Hall, and correspondingly Mrs. Gascoigne‘s Boudoir or Morning Room – and family and servant areas, such as the kitchen at Standen or butler‘s pantry at Cragside. Otherwise the clickable rooms represent the range of rooms found in a typical country house: dining room, drawing room, morning room, library, hall, kitchen.
Once the pupils have completed each of the houses in order, there will be a section which tests their understanding of the content they have just watched by asking a set of multiple choice questions. These questions will be positioned beneath an image of a circuit diagram, and each question will relate to a circuit component covered in the material over the course of the interactive. Each correct answer will place a component on the circuit diagram, and at the end, if all questions have been answered correctly, the pupil will be able to click a button to activate the circuit, for example lighting up a bulb, ringing a bell and causing a motor to turn.
We envision the interactive being used both at home and in a classroom environment. At home, the pupil would simply go through it as described above. This should take no more than 20 minutes if all the materials are viewed. In the classroom, the interactive can be projected on a large screen as a whole-class activity, and the teacher can guide the pupils through it. A pupil can be called up to select the hotspot in each room, thus involving 12 pupils in total over the course of the interactive (four rooms with one question each per house). When the question is displayed, the teacher can ask the pupils to suggest answers before clicking on it to show the video. Alternatively the teacher can pick just one of the houses to cover in this way, for example if a visit is planned or if one of the house themes is a particularly good fit with their teaching. We also intend to provide supporting resources for teachers using the interactive in this way, including information about each of the country houses, photographs used in the interactive, and further follow-up activities such as a worksheet and suggestions for related drama activities.
Thanks to Leeds Media Services, with whom we are working to produce the video content for the interactive, and to our technical officer Corey Benson, who is developing the interactive itself, we will be able to use this opportunity in the classroom to demonstrate a simple, limited version of some of the interactive content to get some feedback from the pupils and their teacher. We will then be able to incorporate this into the character scripts, which will be filmed in December.
Work on our history of electricity musical has now begun in earnest, and the final year theatre and performance students in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries (PCI) are putting a lot of time into writing the script and song lyrics, composing the music and choreographing the dance scenes, as well as designing a period-appropriate set. There are 24 students in all and they supervised by Dr. George Rodosthenous (Associate Professor in Theatre Directing) and Dr. Tony Gardner (Lecturer in Performance Processes & Techniques).
Having given them material to read over the summer I went to see them at the beginning of their project a couple of weeks ago to talk to them about our work and how they might think about adapting it for the stage, especially given my recent experience working with other drama students to produce our Light Night performance. They have a blog, which you can visit for news, photos and podcasts about the development of the production. They’re also on Twitter: @ElectrifiedPCI.
Although working with drama students wasn’t something we originally envisioned being a large part of this project, our collaborations in this area have nevertheless produced some of our most innovative and creative outputs. We have developed a very good working relationship with our colleagues in the School of PCI, George Rodosthenous and Tony Gardner, and have found the students very enthusiastic to take part in other opportunities to dramatise our project materials. As a result, our dramatic outputs have now expanded to include – as well as the musical – our Light Night performance, guide characters for our KS2 history of electricity digital interactive, and a short film we will shoot at Lotherton Hall in December. The students have also taken it upon themselves to organise an educational workshop at the University for local school children at which they will perform sections of the musical.
Our digital interactive is currently being built by our technical officer, Corey Benson. It will benefit from the involvement of the students through the use of green screen filming techniques to insert them into video footage of the houses in order to explain elements of the history of electricity. The interactive itself will comprise floor plans of each of the three partner houses, which pupils will navigate around in the order in which they were electrified (Cragside, Standen, Lotherton Hall). For each house there will be four clickable rooms on the floor plan which pupils can select to learn more about the history of electricity in that particular room. Each house will have a guide character, played by one of the students. These characters will introduce themselves and their respective houses to pupils at the beginning of the interactive, and will then talk to them about specific areas of the history of electricity (science and technology, aesthetics, social history) in videos in each room.
The last dramatic output (for now) is our Lotherton Hall short film. This will be about ten minutes long and will explore what happens when a reporter from a London ladies‘ journal visits the house in the early 1900s to talk to the family and the servants about their new electrical installation. She is concerned in particular with the potential for accidents, especially given the number of people who have been injured or killed by domestic electricity around the country over the preceding few years. I am currently working with a small group of the Electrified students to develop this, and we will film it in Lotherton Hall in December alongside the footage for the digital interactive and the green screen guide characters. The film will be on display at Lotherton Hall for visitors to watch in spring 2016.
I think these enthusiastic collaborations with staff and students from the School of PCI are due in part to the appeal of the stories and anecdotes Graeme brings out in his book Domesticating Electricity, the source material for the project. These humanising stories of the fears and hopes of the people of the time, and the sometimes amusing, sometimes tragic, accidents or problems they ran into, serve to bring the period to life, and lend themselves well to dramatisation. As we consider the ways in which we might further develop this project in the future, the success and excitement of these dramatic outputs is something which we are very much keeping in mind.
Performances of Electrified will be on Thursday, Friday and Saturday the 10th, 11th and 12th of December at 7:30pm, Stage One, Stage@Leeds. Tickets are now on sale here.
I’ve recently been busily travelling around the country visiting Standen and Cragside with film crews to film and photograph various rooms for our digital interactive. At Standen we were joined by the very helpful Leeds Media Services, who will also be doing all our editing, and at Cragside we worked with the University’s own Digital Learning Team, and also filmed material which will be used in first year teaching in January.
The main body of the digital interactive will comprise three floor plans, one for each house, and within each floor plan users will be able to click on four rooms to find out more about the history of electricity in that room of the house. Clicking on a room will display a large photo of the interior of the room, within which will be a clickable hotspot, for example an electric lamp, a telephone, or an electric call signal board. Users will have to find this hotspot, and hovering over it will generate a larger picture of the object, and a question about electricity, which, when clicked on, will open a video answering the question and giving more information.
On these visits we had very little time as we needed to fit around the respective houses’ schedules, so we needed to be very efficient and well organised. We were also very aware of the potential dangers of using filming equipment in small spaces filled with so many invaluable artefacts! Nevertheless, we knew beforehand exactly what we wanted to film and photograph, and we got it all done carefully and in good time.
It was interesting to move around some of the rooms in areas which are normally roped off, and which the public can only see from a distance; in one room in Standen this necessitated us all removing our shoes, a slightly surreal experience which made me glad I had, however unwittingly, managed to find socks without holes in them that morning. We were very grateful for the hospitality of the teams at both houses, and especially for accommodating our requests to move interpretative materials, rope barriers, or occasionally some of their display objects around in order to improve the shot or the photograph.
One of my favourite shots, which I am looking forward to using in the interactive, is one in the Library at Cragside, where we simulated a power failure by filming the lights slowly going out. Early electrical installations often weren’t very reliable! We will be filming at Lotherton Hall, the third partner house, in December.
Over the past two weeks I’ve made a couple of trips up to one of our partner houses, Cragside, near Rothbury in Northumberland. I’ve met members of staff (including Katherine the house steward and Andrew the curator, both of whom have been very friendly and helpful), found things to film for the digital interactive (on which more here) and decided on electrical items to be animated for use around the house.
The digital interactive will tell the story of all three of our partner houses, drawing out common themes in the history of electrification as noted in the Principal Investigator Graeme Gooday’s book, Domesticating Electricity, on which this project is based. These themes will include the aesthetics of electric lighting, how electricity was used for communication, and how early electrical lighting systems were often unreliable. Where possible, we intend to illustrate these themes, and rooms in the houses to which they relate, with video footage, so it was important to look around and see what we should film. Here I was grateful to have my friend and colleague Paul with me taking photographs, while I furiously scribbled partially legible notes on my little pad.
For example, did you know Cragside has two electric dinner gongs upstairs, which were operated by the butler from downstairs to let everyone know it was time for tea? The house was so big you wouldn’t have heard the normal gong at the bottom of the stairs! The old fire alarms are also a very practical and a very attractive technology, especially the one installed in the Owl Suite of bedrooms, where the Prince and Princess of Wales and their children stayed whilst staying at Cragside in August 1884. I can imagine it might have been a little too easy to set these off by accident though!
The animations we will produce will be cartoon-style explanations of various electrical items and systems around the house and wider estate. They will be used on tablets by volunteers and staff to show to visitors. For example, in the library are four vases which were originally oil lamps, but were converted over to use Joseph Swan’s lightbulbs in 1880, making them some of the very first such electric lamps. As there was no effective electric lightswitch yet, these lamps sat on a base which contained a small cup of mercury. When the wire which came down from the bulb through the vase dipped into the mercury, the lamps lit up; when the vases were moved, the bulbs went out. I don’t think you’d want one of those in your house today! We will also be animating the hydroelectric system to demonstrate how it worked, as well as the telephone system which was used by the butler to regulate the supply of electricity to the house.
Blessed with lovely weather on both of my visits, it was very useful to walk around the grounds and get a feel for the layout and the scale of the estate. On my second visit, with Graeme Gooday, the curator Andrew took us up to the top of the house to the tower, not normally seen by visitors. The view was fantastic. I also need to thank Andrew in particular for the treasure trove of primary sources he’s given me to read through, and which I’m very grateful to have. Over the course of the project I hope that maybe I can add to this, possibly by going through volumes of old electrical journals like the Electrician and the Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review to find references to Cragside and Lord Armstrong from the 1880s and 1890s.
Later, Mark, the Cragside representative on the project, and Andrew took Graeme and myself up to the lake at the top of the hill. Armstrong had this lake built around 1886 to provide a supply of water for the turbine which, connected to a dynamo, provided electricity to light the house. This was the second major stage in a project which had begun at the other end of the estate in around 1878; however, the original hydroelectric generating system had been too far from the house and wasn’t efficient enough to deal with the increasing demand as Armstrong installed more lights, so he built a second, closer, generating system.
The lake which powered the electric lighting from 1886.
As you can just about make out from the photo, the view of the otherwise idyllic landscape also includes a couple of electricity pylons lurking in the background, marching their wires across the rolling hills. Some might consider this a rather unfortunate juxtaposition of natural beauty and artificial unsightliness. However, as Andrew pointed out, given Lord Armstrong’s passion for electrification, and pioneering efforts in providing electricity at a distance, maybe this symbol of progress and electrical infrastructure, forming the backdrop to a view of Armstrong’s own early attempts, is really rather appropriate.
I came back from Cragside with plenty to think about, and lots of notes, primary sources and photographs. I’m looking forward to sorting through everything and to doing the filming in early August. In the meantime, here is a photo, taken on the main staircase at the end of our visit by a very patient member of staff, of Paul and myself wearing funny hats. You’re welcome.
One of the key project outputs I’m currently working on is an interactive resource for upper Key Stage 2 pupils (years 5 and 6, age 9-11 years) that tells the story of the electrification of each of the three houses together. This will be hosted on the MyLearning website, a repository for a variety of teaching resources developed by museums and other heritage organisations; please pay them a visit to have a look at other examples of interactive school resources hosted on their site.
Designing this resource is a challenging process because there’s so much involved that needs to be kept in mind. At the centre will be material from Graeme and Abigail’s research, but in order to apply this effectively it’s important to emphasise themes to which school pupils will be able to relate, and which also mesh well with the aims and objectives of the national curriculum guidelines both for history and for science. The interactive needs to draw out common themes from the histories of the three houses, Cragside, Lotherton Hall and Standen, but also must highlight what makes them individual and special.
Something we’re really keen to promote in this project is that country houses were in the past – and often still are – important sites for technical innovation, and as such can be used as venues for teaching science and technology topics, for example electricity (obviously), but also energy self-sufficiency and sustainability (as I mentioned in a previous blog post). Whereas school groups are more likely to visit country houses to support history and art teaching, this interactive could encourage teachers to consider bringing pupils to a local country house for a trip to tie in with teaching about science and technology.
As demands on teachers’ time are many and varied, this interactive will provide an opportunity to investigate the potential of country houses for this in the classroom both before and after the visit. Even if a visit is not possible, the resource can still enable teachers and pupils to consider the scientific and technological heritage embodied in country houses. We’re hoping for example that teachers might be able to use this resource when putting together the local history study which is now a compulsory part of the new history curriculum.
I’ll write again soon about the specific elements we intend to include within this resource. I’m also going to put together a focus group of teachers to consult with in order to discuss the content and structure of this resource and make sure it will be useful in the classroom. If you’re a primary teacher, do you think you’d run a visit to a country house to teach about science and technology as well as art and history?
One of the original aims of this project has always been to try to provide visitors to country houses with layered interpretation, ideally linking paper resources such as trails with digital resources online, such as videos, animations and supplementary text. We originally thought QR codes placed on an electrical heritage trail might be the way to do this, with each linking to a page on our website corresponding to a different room in the house and enabling visitors to access multimedia interpretative materials. The trail would of course also contain material about each room, and would include an explanation of the content the QR code would link to.
Nevertheless, most of the experiences I have come across relate to museums, and not to country houses. A big difference between a museum and a country house is that, when designing a museum exhibition, you are free to utilise and organise the space available however you want. Displays, cases, boards, audiovisual presentation units and the like can be arranged however is most convenient. In a country house on the other hand, the priority tends to be preserving a certain atmosphere of authenticity in the rooms, and this limits curators and educators to stick close to their source material and avoid cluttering the space with too much interpretation.
It could be a bad idea to place too much emphasis on a technology which may already be looking outdated, especially if the resources we produce are to have a long shelf life. The content, however, and the idea of connecting the physical and virtual resources, is still key; as long as the interpretative materials remain available on the website then the gateway through which we make them accessible via the printed materials can be changed. For now though, I’m not sure there exists a better alternative to QR codes – practical within the scope and budget of this project – to accomplish this. In such cases I wonder: is there still a case to be made for QR codes?