Sensitive history under negotiation: pupils' historical imagination and attribution of significance while engaged in heritage projects.

Publication Type:



Erasmus Nuniversity Rotterdam, Erasmus University, Volume PhD, Rotterdam, p.206 p. (2014)





Although little is known about the ways in which pupils learn history during museum visits, people have many expectations of it. Museum visits would bring the past alive for pupils through the presentation of historical objects and audio- and video fragments and pupils’ valuation of a particular heritage would increase. However, do such processes actually occur? And in which ways do pupils’ identities and backgrounds play a role in these processes? This mixed methods multiple case study examined the ways in which pupils imagine a particular history and attribute significance to this history while engaged in heritage projects including a museum visit. A case study was conducted on the history of slavery and a case study on the history of the Second World War.


Research questions
How do pupils in Dutch urban classrooms learn about sensitive histories, such as the history of slavery and WWII, while engaged in heritage projects that present historical traces as Dutch heritage? To answer this question, the following sub questions were examined:

1. In what ways do pupils attribute significance to history and heritage during the heritage project, and how is this related to their self-reported ethnic identity?

2. In what ways do pupils imagine the past, and in what ways is this supported during the heritage project?

3. To what extent do pupils encounter and acknowledge multiple perspectives on the (significance of) history and heritage during the heritage project?

Research method
Data were collected using questionnaires, individual interviews and observations of pupil group work and museum educators. Both case studies involved a school, a heritage institution, pupils, teachers and museum educators associated with the heritage project. In the first study, regarding the history and heritage of slavery, a total of 55 pupils, aged 13 to 14 participated. The second study, regarding the history and heritage of WWII, included a total of 22 pupils aged 15 to 19. In general, each case study spanned a total of six weeks. Students’ work on the heritage project itself spanned one to two weeks (three lessons, including the museum visit).
In both cases, the pupil population reflected the wide variety of social, cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds in the urban areas in which the school was located. The classes were culturally and ethnically diverse (e.g., pupils’ backgrounds included Dutch, Moroccan, Surinamese, Turkish and Antillean).
Several pupils were selected to be followed more closely during the two heritage projects, respectively 13 and 12 pupils. For this selection, Savenije focused on differences in the pupils’ responses on the questionnaire, their gender and the birth country of their pupils’ parents. With this process, she aimed to obtain insight into the variety of perspectives that pupils potentially bring to the classroom and to determine whether she could relate differences to the pupils’ self-reported ethnic identities.
Four whole-class questionnaires were conducted in each case: at the beginning of the project, after the introductory lesson in school, after the museum visit, and after the closing lesson in school. In addition to the questionnaires, the 25 pupils selected for detailed study were interviewed individually before and after the project and were observed working in their triads on the heritage project lessons. The museum educators were also observed.

The study revealed that the heritage projects enriched the pupils’ images of the past and made them more concrete. Also, many pupils were stimulated to empathise with the people from the past. However, they had little attention for the historical context of these people and they had difficulty to take other perspectives than their own present-day perspective.
The heritage projects provided insight in the different ways in which significance is attributed to the past in current Dutch society. The projects enabled the pupils to explore their own ideas regarding significance and how these were related to their identity.

Question 1: Ethnic identity and attribution of significance
At the beginning of the project, the 13- to 14-year-old pupils in the first case study attributed present significance to the history and heritage of slavery. One main argument that they used was that it was significant for a particular group of people, such as the descendants of enslaved people, the Dutch, the undefined group ‘people’ and the pupil himself. In the second main argument, the pupils used slavery as an example of inequality. Slavery became a phenomenon that did not need to be understood but rather had to be rejected or judged. Many of the pupils lacked perspective regarding the historical context of the phenomenon, particularly those pupils who believed that slavery or inequality still existed in modern times. The heritage project sent a strong message regarding the significance of the history and heritage of slavery that was easily adopted by the pupils. Furthermore, the pupils’ understanding of the ways in which the history of slavery is attributed significance in current Dutch society increased. The first case study identified three ways in which the pupils’ ethnic identity related to their attribution of present significance. The pupils (1) felt there was no relationship (sub-categories: no family involved, no explicit idea about it, does not want to name it), (2) felt part of a group related to the topic or (3) displayed a flexible relationship. Some of the pupils identified with ‘the Dutch’ or ‘the descendants of enslaved people’, often setting themselves apart from these identities at the same time. These distancing techniques demonstrated the ways in which the history and heritage of slavery may be sensitive in Dutch classrooms. The interplay between the pupils’ understandings of significance and their identity differed within groups defined by outer characteristics such as the pupils’ parents’ birth countries or their skin colour. Nevertheless, some of the pupils used these categories when discussing their own and other people’s understandings of significance and the relationship to their identity.
Compared with the first case study, pupils in the second case study were more pronounced and united in their identification of groups that would not attribute significance, or would attribute less significance, to the history and heritage of WWII, namely, persons of immigrant descent and adolescents.  At the beginning of the project, some pupils did not regard the history and historical traces of WWII as their heritage but realised that a majority of Dutch citizens did. The interplay between the pupils’ understandings of significance and their identity surfaced notably in the second case study because the pupils were capable of nuanced reflection on this issue.
Three pupils displayed a flexible relationship. They felt part of several groups that they related to, although in different ways. For example, one pupil felt like part of ‘the Muslims’, which he grouped in a larger category of religious victims together with the Jews persecuted in WWII. Another pupil viewed her Muslim association as a reason for not feeling involved in the history of WWII because she believed the war was about Jews. All three pupils said that there was no relationship between their family and the topic of WWII. In contrast to the first study, two of the pupils regarded this distance as a way in which their identity influenced their ideas. During the project, these differences in the ways in which the pupils’ identity played a role in their attribution of significance surfaced in their discussions. The exchange of ideas stimulated reflection on this interplay and on the question of what constitutes good criteria for the attribution of significance to a particular heritage.

Question 2: Imagining the past
At the beginning of the heritage project, the pupils in the first case study imagined slavery rather unanimously as enslaved persons working hard on plantations in America and as enslaved people being maltreated. The perspective of the enslaved dominated their images. The heritage project confirmed these images and enriched them with concrete stories, primarily from the enslaved perspective. Many of the pupils’ images of slavery were changed when they learned about the role of the Dutch Republic in the slave trade.
In the second case study, the pupils’ imagination regarding WWII at the beginning of the heritage project also showed the dominance of particular images, namely, the persecution of Jews and the concentration camps. In the heritage project, the pupils encountered numerous other images and perspectives of the war, some of which were new to them. Overall, the stories and the personal belongings in the museum revealed a daily-life perspective of the war.

Question 3: Multiple perspectives
In the first case study, the pupils did not encounter many different perspectives on the history of slavery, either from each other or in the museum. At the beginning of the project, many of the pupils had similar images of and perspectives on the history of slavery and shared their attributions of significance to the history. However, the museum visit raised questions about other perspectives. During the guided tour, several of the pupils’ questions and remarks addressed different perspectives that were not discussed by the guides. The questionnaire and interviews after the closing lesson revealed the pupils’ curiosity about the perspectives of slave owners, slave traders and ‘bystanders’. Only a few pupils combined different perspectives in their images of slavery. With regard to the significance of the history and heritage of slavery, the pupils adopted and combined different perspectives during the heritage project.
In the second case study, the pupils were very aware of and comfortable with the idea of multiple perspectives on the history of WWII. The pupils explored various perspectives that they had encountered in the museum.