How the Colonial Countryside project is helping children engage with history

Published: 18 December 2020

Last update: 18 December 2020

Blog post
This blog post is written by John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Culture and Engagement John Orna-Ornstein Director of Culture and Engagement
Children working on the Colonial Countryside exhibition at Sutton House, London

In this latest blog, John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Culture and Engagement addresses the debate around our work on the Colonial Countryside project, a creative writing and history project for school children.

The past few days have brought some media criticism of our work on Colonial Countryside, a creative writing project for school children at 11 National Trust houses.

The project started in 2018, bringing children together with writers and historians to explore some of the collections in our care and enable them to use their imaginations and creative skills to discover the stories behind them. We were pleased to work with independent academics and writers on an important subject, and we've had great reviews from teachers and children alike about the project. 

Colonial history is woven into the fabric of many of our places and we want to allow current and future generations to explore it, just like the many other stories and aspects of history that we research and present.

Children learning about the history of Belton House in Lincolnshire
Children learning about the history of Belton House in Lincolnshire
Children learning about the history of Belton House in Lincolnshire

The Trust has supported a lot of creative work in education to enable the next generation to explore and appreciate historic buildings and collections, as well as nature. These are temporary projects and they don't replace our usual curatorial and conservation work when it comes to permanent collections.

At Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire this year, children have been inspired by the collections to make their own sculptures in a project called 'Busting Out'. Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, worked with children to launch a weather balloon into space, and also with students from Grantham College on a 'house of light' show. The paintings by Stanley Spencer depicting scenes from the First World War at Sandham Memorial Chapel were the focus for a project with local children who created a series of dances inspired by the imagery in the paintings, along with other projects covering art, writing and music.

And of course we put huge effort into sharing our knowledge of the environment and nature with children of all ages, from learning the role that plants and insects have on our planet to growing vegetables. At Packwood in Warwickshire a local school gardening club has an area of the garden designated exclusively for them. Children also provide advice for us when we are creating things for their age groups - we set up a children's council to help develop our '50 Things to do Before You're 11 ¾'.

Sharmans Cross School harvesting their vegetables
School children gardening at Packwood House, Warwickshire
Sharmans Cross School harvesting their vegetables

Some of the responses to our colonialism work, and most recently with children, have been unfair and also inaccurate. We always look for excellence, fairness and balance in the assessment of all aspects of the history at National Trust places, often working with external partners and specialists to help us.

We engage specialists for their expert knowledge and experience. We don't seek to influence their personal views. We are a charity and our staff work under strict political impartiality guidelines. But academics and other professionals have different ways of working, and their own guidelines about freedom of expression and use of social media. 

Allowing children to explore history and nature, to think about their place in the world and create new responses is an important part of our work and we are grateful to all those who partner with us to carry it out. This isn't dumbing down, it's ensuring that we are for everyone.