Creatively engaging with archives – WSHC Heritage Education service

Walk into the search room at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and you will notice a couple of objects not normally associated with archives – a bodice made out of maps and a bathtub.

A closer inspection reveals they are two of 17 pieces of artwork produced by students from Wiltshire College’s Chippenham campus who explored the archive and various aspects of the county’s heritage.

The exhibition of 2D and 3D work – on display in the foyer as well as the search room – is already prompting questions from visitors and is encouraging people to engage creatively with our collections.

The project came about when art and design course tutor Alyson Minkley popped into the History Centre to see whether her students could use the archive as a stimulus to creating artwork. She wanted the class to explore the concept of archiving and create pieces that reflected aspects of Wiltshire’s heritage.

We were delighted to be involved in the project as it was another way of encouraging young people to engage creatively with archives. People often think that being the heritage education officer means that my work begins and ends with helping deliver the history curriculum in schools. But archives offer so much more.

For this project I delivered a facilitated session at Wiltshire College where the students were introduced to the concept of collecting and archiving with the help of a handling collection. This was followed by a tour of the History Centre and an opportunity to see behind the scenes as well as explore the practicalities of accessing the archives.

The afternoon generated a huge range of questions and it was clear the students went away inspired. We were delighted to see many of them return to the History Centre in their own time to request documents and carry out detailed research. The result of those visits is the thought-provoking artwork on display in the foyer and search room.

The individual pieces of work explore a wide range of topics including family history, Wiltshire’s asylums and how patients with mental health problems were “treated” in the 19th century, the county’s role as a training ground for the army and its iconic chalk figures – all of which are represented in our archives and local studies collections.

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Such a creative use of the archive is not new. Over the last three years I have worked with school and youth groups who have created dance, drama and poetry inspired by letters, scrapbooks, photograph albums, and oral histories held in the archive.

And we want to encourage more schools, colleges, youth and community groups to engage creatively with the archive, especially through the Creative Wiltshire. This Heritage Lottery Funded project has seen the History Centre acquire works by Wiltshire artists to add to the Wiltshire and Swindon archive and local studies collections, as well as the collections of partner museums and galleries across the county. Acquisitions include photographic prints, wood engravings, limited edition books and the studio archives of sculptor Roger Leigh and painter and muralist Ken White.

To support the use of these archives we will be launching a series of Creative Wiltshire resource packs focusing on key artists and their work.

As well as the arts and performing arts, the archive has the potential to support STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. We hold a number of industrial archives which include technical and architectural drawings and documents connected to the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A search of our online catalogue reveals 26 results for the word mathematics. There are many ways that our archive could support numeracy and maths at primary and secondary level.

And of course the archive and local studies collections come into their own for those studying history and geography, as well as English literature, language and literacy. Why not give your students the opportunity to handle documents that tell the story of Tudor political intrigue, or Wiltshire’s role in the only uprising against Oliver Cromwell. If it is politics and reform you want your sixth form students to explore, they could examine Walter Hume Long’s letters charting the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1918 or delve into Sidney Herbert’s state papers on military reform or hospitals in the Crimea. Documents covering industrial revolution, the Swing Riots, social reform, world wars, the Cold War… From state and public papers of the rich and powerful to the private letters, scrapbooks, sketchbooks and diaries of ordinary Wiltshire people, there is something for everyone.

If you would like to bring your school on a visit to the History Centre or for our Heritage Education Officer to come into your school, contact

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