2. Researching your theme

Creating an exhibition provides a real purpose for students’ learning about a historical theme and helps to motivate and focus their work. Researching their exhibition theme is a great way for students to develop skills and understanding in history and literacy such as:

  • A coherent sense of chronology
  • Making connections and recognising cause and effect
  • Framing historically valid questions and answering them through analysis and narrative
  • Using a range of primary and secondary sources to find out about the past
  • Structuring and organising non-narrative writing
  • Developing specialist vocabulary and language for describing and explaining
  • Using the past tense of a wide range of verbs

Introduce the idea of creating an exhibition right at the beginning of your topic. Show students examples of other exhibitions from the Inspiration gallery. Use the ‘Displays’ filter to help them visualise what their own exhibition might look like and spark ideas. Use the activities and ideas below to help students find out more about their exhibition topic. The Image gallery includes useful information and biographies about each object, painting or portrait plus links to other useful websites and resources to support both teachers’ and students’ research.

Try using a painting, portrait or person from the Image gallery as a stimulus to introduce your exhibition theme. The Bombardment of the Hartlepools by James Clark, for example, provides much food for thought and discussion about the impact of World War I on the local area. Or the Opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway by John Dobbin could prompt discussion about how transport has changed and just what sort of equivalent modern day event might be attended by so very many people from all walks of life. Encourage students to ask questions about the painting and use these to structure some of their research. Talk about how the people or events compare or relate to students’ lives today. There are lots of practical ideas and activities for exploring paintings in the Using portraits, paintings and images guide.

Explore the Making a Mark timeline with students to see what happened in the area before and after events in your theme. Are they connected in any way? For example, the invention of steam trains and the pioneering railways in the area made it possible for people of all walks of life to travel to new seaside resorts in Saltburn, Hartlepool and Redcar.

Enquiry questions are a useful way to structure students’ research. These can be devised by teachers to steer students’ learning, or by the students themselves to focus their research in a direction that they are particularly interested in. They can be wide and far-reaching, for example: How has transport in our area changed? What did people do at the seaside in Redcar in the past? What was life like for Saxons in the Tees Valley? Or more focused: What did the ironstone miners take with them to work? What might the first journey on the Stockton and Darlington Railway have been like? Students or groups of students could each have a different research focus to feed into the ‘bigger picture’, or contribute to different sections of an exhibition.

A visit to your local museum is the ideal way to immerse students in your chosen theme. Museums across the Tees Valley have a range of exciting, hands-on curriculum-based workshops for Key Stages 1 & 2. A museum visit provides opportunities to introduce or find out more about your theme. You can also look at exhibitions and explore the different ways objects are organised and presented. Find out more about schools programmes available in our eight local museums here. When you contact the Education Officer be sure to tell them you are creating an exhibition, as there may be ways your visit could be specially tailored.

Investigating objects and images develops students’ enquiry and critical thinking skills and is a great way to develop language and vocabulary. Museums across the Tees Valley have a range of loan boxes containing objects, clothes and other primary sources for students to use in their classroom enquiries and to include in their exhibition. Loan boxes are very popular and early booking is advisable, find out more here. Family and friends might also be willing to loan items. You can print out high quality portraits and other images from the Image gallery and from the National Portrait Gallery’s online collection of over 2000 portraits. Use our tried-and-tested classroom activities for Using objects to find out about the past and Using portraits, paintings and images to find out about the past to support students’ learning.

The memories of people in our own families and local communities can be a rich source of information about the past. Students can collect memories related to their theme from family members, people from the community or their school using the Collecting memories template. They could interview contributors to find out more and record them using a simple tablet app (see the Digital activities guide for more information).

What can our local area tell us about the past? Are there any significant buildings, structures, statues or street names relating to your theme close by? Perhaps your school is near to a war memorial commemorating the local people who lost their lives in the First World War, or a bridge or building along the original Stockton to Darlington Railway route.

Historic England have a searchable image bank of hundreds of buildings, structures and monuments in the Tees Valley, including Red Barns House (Gertrude Bell’s home) in Redcar, the Transporter Bridge and a statue of Joseph Pease. Each image is accompanied by useful information. Hidden Teesside also has hundreds of images grouped by theme and area.

How has the area changed? Students can use maps and aerial views to explore a number of themes relating to the Tees Valley’s history such as the rapid growth of Middlesbrough in the 1800s, or the development of seaside towns like Saltburn-on-Sea. They could chart changes in railway routes or look for evidence of areas named during Saxon and Viking times (e.g. Anglo Saxon names traditionally end in –ton, -ham or –ley; Viking place names end in –by, -thorpe and –ay). Your local library may have copies of old maps of the area, or use Historic England’s searchable bank of aerial views. Use Google maps to compare these with the local area today.

Inspiration gallery

Filter objectsSelected tag:Publicising (12)

The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell Exhibition web banner

© Redcar and Cleveland Council Cultural Service, Kirkleatham Museum

Safe and Sound Exhibition poster

© Head of Steam - Darlington Railway Museum

Black Chronicles Exhibition poster

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Learning the ropes Exhibition poster

© Captain Cook Birthplace Museum

Walkabout Exhibition invitation

© Captain Cook Birthplace Museum

Voices of the Bombardment, exhibition poster

© Hartlepool Borough Council

Saxon Princess Exhibition leaflet

© Redcar and Cleveland Council Cultural Service, Kirkleatham Museum