On having fun

Does having fun when you visit a historic site necessarily mean that you're not taking it seriously?
Ever since the publication in the 1980s of On Living in an Old Country by Patrick Wright, and The Heritage Industry by Robert Hewison, it has been common to come across the idea that popularising heritage inevitably offers a ‘dumbed down’ version of history, driven by the demands of commercialisation. It’s easy to dismiss re-enactment societies, or the re-creation of spotless historic interiors, or children dressing up in period costumes, as part of a nostalgia for an idealised past - just a bit of fun. 
It’s probably true that the emerging heritage industry of the ‘80s needed someone to point out the pitfalls of turning too much of a soft focus on history. On the other hand, the ‘heritage industry’ critique did not properly recognise or understand the genuine public appetite for learning about past lives and times.  The growing demand for history-based leisure activities over the past thirty years can be demonstrated by quoting the soaring membership numbers of the National Trust, the popularity of television programmes on archaeology and history, and the literary phenomenon that is ‘Horrible Histories’.
I was thinking about this as I staffed the Norfolk Archaeological Trust stall at the Caistor Roman Town Family Fun Day in May. I’m as guilty as the next cynical person of wincing slightly at the ‘Family Fun’ tag – but actually it describes accurately the kind of day it was. A crowd of people (circa 500) arrived with their young children and had fun. 
I asked some visitors to fill in a survey before they left, and they all reported that they had enjoyed the event – most had stayed for two or more hours – and everyone agreed there had been plenty to keep their children interested. Amongst other things, they made swords out of cardboard, they met Icenians and had their faces painted with blue patterns, they heard exciting storytelling, excavated a skeleton and picked seeds out of very convincing pretend human excreta (provided by the Norfolk Historic Environment Service). 
The purpose of picking out the seeds was to identify whether the diet was Saxon or Roman, and was an adapted version of a real archaeological investigation technique.  This activity could be seen as pandering to the lowest common denominator – there was a lot of laughter and wrinkled noses as children picked away with their tweezers. But as we all know, if we’re trying to learn something, it’s much easier to do if it’s fun. The Fun Day offered experiences that children will remember, and for some of them it might be the beginning of a lifelong interest in history and archaeology - and that was the aim.
The Caistor Roman Town Family Fun Day was funded by South Norfolk Council and Caistor St Edmund Parish Council
News in brief
  • 20th June 2015 10am – 5pm: Recent Archaeological Discoveries in Norfolk Conference Blackfriars’ Hall, Norwich. A day of fascinating talks on Norfolk’s newest archaeological research, with papers from the Palaeolithic to the Second World War and everything in between. Drinks reception to follow Tickets £18 Concessions £16, includes tea, coffee and drinks reception. To book: www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/conference-2015
  • Sunday 2nd August 2015: Boat trip to Bishop’s Service, St Benet’s Abbey Boarding time: 13.15 at the Swan Green, Horning. Return time: 18.00 approx. Tickets £10.00 – please reserve tickets at tfosba@gmail.com
  • The model of St Benet’s Abbey, produced during the HLF project, has been loaned to the Museum of the Broads for the next three years: find out opening times and other information at www.museumofthebroads.org.uk