Teaching Mary: Mary, Queen of Scots public programmes at the National Museum of Scotland, June to November 2013

In the first of series of posts on ‘Teaching Mary in the 21st Century’, Emma Webb and Rachel Drury (members of the Learning and Engagement team at National Museums Scotland) reflect on the public events programme that accompanied the 2013 exhibition ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ and explore some of the highlights and challenges of ‘teaching’ Mary with a wide range of audiences, including primary and secondary schools and lifelong learners.

Dancing at the Court of Queen Mary with Artemis Scotland, National Museum of Scotland, 2013 © National Museums Scotland

Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the most famous figures in Scottish history and our collections at National Museums Scotland (NMS) include a rich selection of objects associated with the queen, the Scottish Royal Court and Scotland at the time of her reign. A major exhibition dedicated to her story ran at the National Museum of Scotland from 28 June to 17 November 2013.

The Learning and Engagement team at NMS planned and delivered a programme of public events alongside the exhibition. We anticipated that there would be strong interest in the exhibition from adult and school audiences and were keen to theme some of our regular events around Mary and 16th century Scotland, to engage a wider range of visitors with our 16th century Scottish collections. The timing of the exhibition, from June to November 2013, meant we could reach a variety of audiences during its run, including school groups, local adult learners and family audiences, and in addition, summer family holiday and tourist visitors.

Exploring the 16th century, through objects from our collections and replicas, with our NMS Learning and Engagement enablers, 2013 © National Museums Scotland

Our family summer holiday programme explored life at the Scottish Royal Court in the 16th century – what did courtiers wear? how did they spend their time? what was the polite way to greet the queen? Our family visitors encompass a wide age range, from babies and toddlers up to around 9-11 years old and most family groups are looking for fun activities which can involve everyone. The programme featured NMS learning staff, in authentically designed costume, running object handling sessions, dress up activities exploring costume and symbolism in 16th century portraiture, and ‘make and take’ sessions such as making heraldic flags, pomanders and scrolls. We commissioned two external re-enactment companies, Artemis Scotland and Living History Scotland to add some ‘living history’ to the programme: families ‘met’ Mary and discovered more about life during her reign through demonstrations, performances and displays.

We took the opportunity to buy historically accurate period costumes, which we continue to use in our programmes today, together with dress up items for children including multiple French hoods, capes and dress.

Supporting the curriculum: Programmes for schools, autumn 2013

We anticipated strong primary school interest in the exhibition. Mary Queen of Scots was already a popular topic in our schools programmes, reflecting strong links to the Curriculum for Excellence: Social Studies Second Level: People, past events and societies . But we were also aware that to justify the resource required to plan and carry out a museum visit, teachers are looking for added value and that our exhibition – whose primary audience was adult visitors – might not be a sufficient draw for schools on its own. We therefore developed bespoke workshops for primary schools which offered practical, engaging activities including dressing-up in 16th century replica clothing and learning courtly dances and pastimes. We took a different approach for secondary school groups – which are often a much greater challenge to attract to museums because of the demands of their timetable. Instead of developing an untested new programme, we adapted an established secondary workshop on Fashion Photography and themed it around Mary and 16th century Scotland. For these pupils Mary was more about inspiration than information. They used the exhibition themes as stimulus for their own creative ideas, and learned how to style and shoot high quality photographs, with replica costume and objects as props.

As well as on-site programmes, we offered online sessions via the Scottish digital learning platform GLOW, which allowed us to reach schools at distance. These sessions allowed pupils to meet the exhibition curator and to explore objects from our handling collection with a member of the NMS learning team.

Broadening our programme: Mary Queen of Scots events for adults
16th-century style ‘photoshoots’ at the Mary, Queen of Scots Museum Late, National Museum of Scotland, November 2013 © Ruth Armstrong

‘An absolute delight! Mary and Antonia are both heroines’

Antonia Fraser: In Conversation

‘The talks were very interesting and thought provoking. They also complemented one another very well’

Saturday Showcase: Iconic Queens

The adult events programme accompanying the exhibition was very successful, attracting in total around 5000 participants. The programme allowed us to explore the themes of the exhibition in greater depth, and to involve high profile writers and historians. We scheduled six public lectures, including highlight talks by Lady Antonia Fraser and biographer John Guy, and a full day seminar titled Iconic Queens featuring Taryna Cooper (Chief Curator, National Portrait Gallery) and Professor Caroline Wilkinson (University of Dundee). We also hosted two fully-booked 4-day summer courses for adults as part of our partnership with University of Edinburgh’s Office of Lifelong Learning and NMS curators delivered talks to organised groups such as NADFAS Scotland. These were very popular as introductions to the exhibition. The numbers attending these events, and the overwhelmingly positive response of our audiences indicates a very broad and lasting interest in Mary and her historical significance.

The Queen also provided the focus for a series of informal evening events, scheduled during the exhibition run. These included two After Hours events in August, part of our Festival Fringe programme, targeting younger adults and summer visitors to the city – and a very successful Museum Late in November. Late ticketholders enjoyed exclusive after hours entry to the exhibition and an exciting programme of events including CSI Kirk O’Fields – which explored the forensic evidence around the murder of Henry, Lord Darnley – together with object handling, crafts (adapted from our family programme ) and a ‘16th-century style’ science show.

After Mary – programming Mary Queen of Scots beyond the 2013 exhibition

Mary Queen of Scots remains a popular attraction for general visitors to the National Museum of Scotland – in particular for international tourists. Our guided tours, which are researched and delivered by our team of NMS Volunteer Guides include two tours (The Auld Alliance, and The Stuarts) which feature Mary and which are regularly requested by individual visitors and tour groups

Interest is often boosted when Mary features in popular media, for instance during the run of the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie and it is likely that we will return to the theme in response to future media events or to major anniversaries.

For specific audiences such as schools, interest in Mary Queen of Scots fluctuates. The bespoke session for primary schools that we launched alongside the exhibition continued as part of our schools offer until the 2016-17 academic year. We then withdrew it from the programme due to a decline in bookings. Changes in the school curriculum and in schools’ priorities for teaching and learning mean that teachers are looking for us to support other curriculum topics and subject areas. We are also aware that, for those schools who do still teach Mary, they are more likely to choose to visit other heritage organisations and venues, such as the palaces of Holyrood and Linlithgow, which offer more extensive content on this subject.

In terms of family audiences, whilst our holiday programmes tend to focus on current exhibitions or celebrations, our regular programming often takes in themes from across the museum collections. Whilst that means that Mary Queen of Scots has not had the high level of focus it did during the 2013 exhibition run, the legacy of the programming and our investment in materials and resources continues. The object handling sessions that we developed, in particular a 16th- century medicine- themed session, is still incredibly popular with families and has even been used in other areas of engagement such as STEM programming. We have created family tours and early years sessions on the period using both the costumes and (some of the more robust) handling objects.

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