Face to Face with the Lewis Chessmen: an exploration of childrenʼs engagement with material heritage at the National Museum of Scotland
Bull, Nicola Lucy
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Museums can be productive sites for the study of society, because they are spaces where the constitution of knowledge about the past is made visible through public display. Playing an important role in the performance and legitimisation of national culture, museums in Scotland pay particular attention to the education of children. It is often claimed that children can gain an understanding of their history through physical engagement with museum collections. Both the ‘past’ and the ‘future’ are thus constituted within the museum. Through an exploration of children’s education at the National Museum of Scotland and The Lewis Chessmen: Unmasked touring exhibition, I argue that efforts by museums to exert control over ongoing processes through which subjects and objects, past and future, nations and heritage are constituted can be deeply challenged by children and museum objects, both of whose status remain inherently dynamic and unstable. Despite the museum’s claims to have “real things [objects] revealing stories”, objects rarely reveal narratives beyond those exerted upon them. They are, instead, materially and relationally constituted in particular places, at particular times. The same ‘instability’ applies to children visiting the museum. Children engage with the material stuff of the museum in surprising and unpredictable ways. This dynamic, multisensory interaction enables children to pursue personal projects, which do not necessarily adhere to the agendas of the museum. Yet, children often do go along with the museum’s narratives, commonly accepting what they are told by adults about the objects they are handling. They are also deeply concerned with the authenticity of these objects. Whether an objects is ‘real’ or not, however, is not necessarily judged by the same standards shared with the museum. Children’s awareness of a ‘real’ object’s metonymical presence not only enables an experiential encounter with the past, but also enables them to work out their own positions within the power structures of the museum; testing their own concerns relating to trust, truth, value and the process of becoming adults.