The Scottish Parliament’s summer exhibition, Special Delivery: the William Wallace Letters, succeeds at three quite different levels, educational, historical and political.
Unfortunately, the exhibition’s educational elements are physically less than obvious. One computer, facing away from the main exhibition, captures the work of five schools: John Paul High, Bishopbriggs Academy, Craigholme School, John Logie Baird Primary and, my own former school, Wester Hailes Education Centre. It is far too easy to miss and appears like an afterthought.
That is regrettable. The work exhibited – Powerpoint presentations, an assembly, newspapers ‘reporting’ Wallace’s capture and execution, and a radio programme ‘interviewing witnesses’ to Wallace’s life – illustrates engaging learning and cross-curricular work, the essence of Curriculum for Excellence. It would have been no imposition to have exhibited some more visually obvious educational material and highlighted more effectively the quality work in Scotland’s schools.
A better planned educational input might have taken the subject of the exhibition (the letters, rather than Wallace) and explored how schools could use these to make historical data more understandable to young learners. Advice to schools might also have included an absolute bar on images of Mel Gibson but perhaps it was assumed that history teachers would have worked that out without guidance.
The main exhibition is compact and manageable but it succeeds in illustrating key principles of history education. The brief letters, flimsy survivors after 700 years, of an age from which few documents remain, emphasise that the historian’s trade is firstly the gathering of evidence.
The exhibition also succeeds, however, in effectively drawing together the essential elements of the Scottish Wars of Independence. As synopsis, it neatly covers the dynastic issues following the death of Alexander III.
It makes clear through the narrative that Scotland then, as many small countries today, are at the mercy of big power politics. When England and France made peace to consider a joint crusade, Scotland lost, in France, her main ally and support. Wallace’s capture directly flowed from that Anglo-French treaty. The Auld Alliance operated only when it suited the interests of France.
Finally, by quoting popular ballads, one from England deriding Wallace and one from Scotland insulting Edward II, it neatly illustrates the subjective nature of political propaganda.
For all these reasons, this exhibition better illustrates history than it does the fine work in Scottish schools in studying history. It is a historian’s exhibition which should be viewed by as many teachers and school groups as possible but, unfortunately, starting during the summer holidays and running only until 8 September, opportunities are limited. It is hardly the best time of the year to stage an exhibition which could have offered so much to our schools.
All credit, however, to those who mounted the exhibition for having skilfully managed the political aspects of Wallace and the Wars of Independence.
As Scotland heads towards its 2014 referendum on independence, this was a potential minefield. It might be argued that even to present such an exhibition raises old myths irrelevant to 21st-century Scotland. It could have been Braveheart propaganda, the retelling of resistance narratives, projecting Scotland as an occupied nation. That was entirely avoided.
The contemporary questions posed by the exhibition, however, are far more complex. What are on display are artefacts crucial to the very formation of the Scottish nation. At the very least, such an exhibition should be a starter for serious questions, firstly on whether Scotland remains a distinct nation today and, if so, whether it should assert that nationhood in independence or in a multinational state. That, however, is for the modern studies rather than the history department.

The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 10 September 2012: http://www.holyrood.com/articles/2012/09/10/missed-opportunity-educational-angle-to-wallace-exhibit-deserved-more-attention/

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