Home Courses that explore our Special Collections and Archives

Archives courses - Dr Michelle Johansen

This term, Bishopsgate Institute’s Interpretation Manager, Dr Michelle Johansen, is delivering or co-delivering a range of new courses and workshops that draw upon our the content of our Special Collections and Archives.

What can students attending one of your courses expect?

It isn't a typical classroom experience. Students can expect a brief introduction from me to the subject matter. The bulk of each session is then spent examining themed sets of original source materials selected from our special collections and archives and relating to the course topic. Students explore these items in a structured way before sharing findings in an informal discussion at the close of the session.

What ‘materials’ will there be and how are they presented? And can they touch them?

Yes they can touch all of the materials. These courses offer a rare chance to get 'hands on' with history. Sometimes the session will start with the materials concealed in boxes or cases. There is a palpable buzz of expectation in the classroom as students are invited to open up their case for the first time. Inside, they might discover photographs, pamphlets, flyers, maps, badges or minute books. Most of the items are paper-based but occasionally objects are included. Students on the From Suffragettes to Feminists course, for example, have the chance to view a souvenir Suffragette tea set from the early part of the twentieth century.

There will always be too much to read in the time available. This is intentional. Providing plenty of choice allows students to discover subjects that are of particular interest to them, whether these are subjects they arrived hoping to learn more about or subjects they have found for the first time through one or more of the documents on display on the day. So every student will take away something different from the same session.  

What is the reaction of people when they get to handle these items?

Surprise. Pleasure. Delight. A hush falls in the room as students start to view the items. This is always the best part of the session for me as a lot of thought goes into 'curating' the materials beforehand so it's rewarding to see people enjoying and learning from them during the session. And then at the close of the session, when the atmosphere becomes more informal as students prepare to leave the classroom, many will say that it wasn't what they expected but they had really appreciated having the chance to access the materials for themselves. Some head straight for box office to book another archives course, which makes me happy!  

Why do you choose to do this when you could just impart your knowledge?

That’s one of the biggest challenges for me, as a historian, sitting back and not telling the class what I already know or not interrupting their reading to ask questions or pass comment of my own. But it's important that the students discover things for themselves, at their own pace. Having facilitated this type of learning for almost ten years, I’m experienced in putting together sets of items that will tell a coherent story about a particular subject at a key moment in the past so even though I can’t exactly predict what students will find I know there is a narrative waiting to be discovered among the items. It's very rewarding that they not only seem to find this narrative but they also invariably make fresh discoveries of their own.

This term you have new courses on the Spanish Civil war and Irish history. How will these be different from your usual archives courses?

The special collections at Bishopsgate Institute are rich in materials on 1930s Spain and twentieth-century Ireland but the complexity of these subject areas calls for in-depth knowledge so I've been working with a historian to devise sessions that combine practical, archives-based learning with more conventional teacher-led tuition. Dr David Convery will provide expert talks and presentations to help students gain an understanding of the course themes while I will contribute opportunities to explore these themes independently through curated sets of original sources, including posters, pamphlets, photographs and letters.  

What would you hope that students would take away from an archive course session?

What students gain from handling library and archive materials directly is the chance to explore the past on its own terms, which is a great way of disrupting preconceptions - and arguably the best way of inspiring original historical findings. I would hope students would be challenged, surprised and encouraged to find out more following one of my archive sessions.

As well as being “challenged", "surprised” and “disrupted” are they going to enjoy taking part?

Yes! That’s vital. This is a really playful way of learning about the past. The sessions are intellectually vigorous, and they expect a lot of reading from each student, but the closing group discussions are lively and thought-provoking and of course the materials themselves are a pleasure to view and handle for anyone interested in the print or visual cultures of the past. After all, who wouldn't want to spend an evening among beautiful hand-tinted Victorian maps and lithographs or while away an afternoon reading yellowing letters sent to and from the Western Front in the First World War or devote a day to poring over richly-illustrated guides to going out in interwar London?!

Here's a list of some of our archives courses...