‘Why Travelling Matters?’ Engaging schools with our migration stories

Written by Phillippa Heath, Learning and Engagement Manager at The MERL.

As part of Traveller’s History Month, we have been sharing MERL collections which connect with the histories of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. These fascinating collections, spanning objects, archives, photography, art and library collections, tell us so much about the importance of GRT heritage and experiences on rural England and, more broadly, how integral migration and travel has been to making the countryside what it is today.

As part of this work, we have been thrilled to work with West Berkshire EMTAS (Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Service) and one of our local schools (Garland Junior School) in helping us look afresh at these collections and their significance to lives today. We chose to do this through the subject of ‘Why Travelling Matters?’.

Coming out of lockdown, the concept of travel and movement, be they journeys near or far, has made many of us appreciate the freedom to travel all the more. Our school partner was keen to use it as a topic, thinking that it would be an experience shared by many students, with have the potential to connect all of the school communities as they returned to onsite teaching. For EMTAS, they saw a great value in exploring this theme with students:

‘The children will be encouraged to explore different aspects of migration and travel by referring to objects of interest […] held at MERL. There is huge value for all pupils in exploring historical and cultural aspects of migration and this gives GRT pupils the opportunity to share their own rich cultural heritage. Having real objects from the museum brings the subject to life and makes for exciting learning opportunities’.

Children in a primary school classroom.

We spent an exhilarating day with all of Garland’s 214 students to explore this subject through our collections. Using the painting ‘Rural Life’ which is on display at The MERL as a starting point, together we investigated what the painting shows and students observed many things in the painting including the mare, cob and the coarsing dogs.

An unfinished painting from The MERL collection.
An unfinished artwork from The MERL collection, painted by an unknown Traveller artist in the 1950s (MERL 2007/21). Its story forms the heart of our online exhibition: ‘An Unfinished Painting’.

We then looked a bit more closely at some of our objects and photography collections, and students explored what those objects might be, who might have owned or used them, and what they might tell us about travel in the countryside.

Garland Junior School’s Head Teacher reflected that:

‘The museum objects were well-chosen, providing the children with a range of items to discuss – some of which were familiar and others which made them think! As well as the objects, pupils seeing images of how these would have been used, or by whom, enabled them to get more from their discussions. There was a nice balance of historical source investigation and then relating this to the pupils’ own lives which kept pupils engaged in the workshop and meant that they all felt they had something to offer’.

As part of this process of object investigation, students worked in teams to discuss, decipher and then share their feedback. What was familiar for one student might have been mysterious to another. And we had the pleasure of overhearing some fascinating conversations as they tried to reach a consensus.

The relevance of some of these collections to GRT heritage in particular resulted in students from that background playing a central role in this process. The Head Teacher described that:

‘The main benefit was for our pupils from a GRT background. Without them being singled out, they were able to take the lead in many of the discussions and explain things to their peers. This gave them a great sense of pride and achievement. I think it is important for the children to get a feeling of local history that is pertinent and relevant to them’.

Students were then asked to consider why travelling is important to them and what object they would take with them on a journey. In the Head Teacher’s words, this part of the session ‘enabled all pupils to think about how they value travelling ….. community cohesion in action!’ Their choices, as you can imagine, were wide-ranging. Where some students opted for cuddly toys, others thought practically choosing technologies or money. We would love you to take a look at their responses in the online exhibition and perhaps ask yourself why travelling matters to you?


Over the coming months we are looking forward to continuing our work with schools to share and raise awareness of our collections, in particular those relating to GRT heritage, and for students to share their stories. If you would like to get in contact to discover more or be involved, please email merlevents@reading.ac.uk.

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