So to find out how best to improve what we offer children at the Parsonage, we thought we'd consult the experts - the children themselves!
Over two days in the autumn term of 2009, we worked with fifteen children from Haworth Primary School. All the children were from year 5 (age 9-10) and of mixed ability, and all contributed to the discussions and activities with great enthusiasm. We began by discussing what their favourite museums were, and what they liked best about them. We then explored the Parsonage with a questionnaire to discover their ideas about the rooms as they are now; what they'd like to discover more about, and how we might make the information more exciting; afterwards, we then came back together for a brainstorming session.
The children's initial responses were varied:
"I want to read Emily's diary paper but the writing's to small - can you write it out again at the side?"
"You should have somebody dressed up to pretend to be a Bronte!"
"I'd like to know more about the books on the shelves"
"I like the fire in the kitchen, it would be good if you could cook on it!"
It was clear though, that many of the children understood already some of the constraints we have here; a carriage which takes you back in time and round the museum to see life size models going about their business, might work brilliantly at the Jorvik Viking Centre, but might cause a few problems here at the Parsonage! The children also realised that some of the very hi-tec interactives they enjoy at other museums might not work here; not only due to lack of space, but because they just 'wouldn't look right' in the Parsonage.
So with a more realistic idea of what we might do, we set about trying to come up with some ideas. We did some research into the Brontës first; about their lives and what made them so unusual (as well as so incredibly famous), to give the children some background to work with and maybe some inspiration. We explored what the different rooms in the Parsonage might have meant to the Brontës as children and what kind of 'feel' the rooms might have had, as well as the different sights, sounds and smells. We got some really interesting and sometimes unexpected feedback from the children about this. For example, whilst I was expecting most of the comparisons the children would make with their own lives would have been unfavourable, (what - no telly??) that wasn't always the case. One little girl remarked 'I think it would have been nice and peaceful, chatting to each other, and no fights over the remote control!'
To explore these ideas further we invited a local poet, Charlotte March, to help the children get their thoughts down on paper in an imaginative way. A very lively afternoon followed, and some interesting pieces of writing. The other main strand of ideas we pursued was the children's interest in the actual objects in the rooms, and we thought about different ways we could present information about them. The children were very clear all along about not wanting to just have lots of text to read:
"It should be colourful"
"It would be good to have pictures or cartoons"
"Something we could touch"
After discussing lots of ideas that might be possible (and not just exciting!) we came up with the idea of having a picture of a 'mystery' object in the room on a kind of flap which you lift, to reveal an interesting and unexpected piece of information. Much as we also liked the idea of looking at the rooms more from the point of view of the Brontës' experiences there as children, this is the idea we decided to develop in the end; largely because of the issue of space and the necessity of keeping whatever we do very simple. The objects which will be in the final interpretation will all be ones the children identified as being particularly interesting to them.
We are hoping to install this new interpretation in the Parsonage in the early part of this year.
My thanks to Haworth primary school and particularly the children involved in the project and the teaching assistant and Mum who accompanied the children!
Education Officer, Brontë Parsonage Museum