Inspiring Learners at The Red House

Our third blog of 2020 comes from APAC member Dr Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library at The Red House in Suffolk, who tells us about using their collections to inspire learning and creativity.

The Red House, former home of the composer Benjamin Britten and his partner the tenor Peter Pears, is a historic house on the edge of Aldeburgh, Suffolk: the offer to the public here combines the house itself, Britten’s composition studio, the Library that Britten and Pears built in part as a rehearsal space and that now hosts small recitals, an exhibition area and, in its own building, the two men’s extensive archive. 

Benjamin Britten outside The Red House with one of his beloved daschunds

In recent years, The Red House has run an active programme of outreach to local schools, developing modules to support various National Curriculum areas.  The vast majority of these sessions involve a visit to the archive to see material tailored to the session and to visit the strongroom to learn about how historic materials are kept.

Last autumn The Red House set out to tailor these sessions for SEND learners, hosting four visits from local special schools.  The learners were typically in Years 9-10 and their needs varied considerably: some pupils were non-verbal and/or required mobility aids, and positions on the spectrum of learning difficulty and/or autism varied considerably.  We liaised with the schools in advance of each visit to get a rough picture of each group’s profile of needs, after which each session was tailored to the needs of the group.  Each, however, was built around a similar basic set of elements: an introduction in which pupils met the four main groups of instruments (percussion, brass, woodwind, strings), a visit to the House itself, a professional musician playing for them in the Library, a visit to the Archive and finally a chance to make music of their own drawing on the experiences of the day.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

For the more able groups the archive material we showed included written items such as Britten’s school report card and a sample score, as well as more visual materials such as set designs.  For higher-needs pupils the focus was upon visual materials, showing the animal masks used for Britten’s Noyes Fludde beside replicas that the pupils could try on.  Those of us who work with archives know how varied any collection is: the different directions that it can be made to point in, and the different interests that it can spark.  Using widely-varied materials meant that there was something for each group to pick up on: one pupil with an interest in dogs wanted to know more about Britten’s dachshunds, for instance, whilst the fact one of the sets was by a designer who also worked for the BBC on “Dr. Who” sparked a discussion about what made the design conjure up the right atmosphere for an opera featuring ghosts.  For groups without mobility needs, there was also a visit to the strongroom; swinging open the steel door and taking them beyond the “Staff Only” notice was a new and dramatic experience for them.

The Archive at The Red House

The learners were engaged and interested, and from the staff we learned that they paid us the ultimate compliment – talking enthusiastically about the visit back in school the next day.  It was a real demonstration of the ability of archives to communicate, and of the flexibility of a collection to reach different audiences.  The plan, when The Red House emerges from the coronavirus shutdown, is to make this a regular offering: future blog posts, I hope, will report on how this programme develops!

The Red House is a major heritage site and archive based at Britten and Pears’ Suffolk home. To find out more about the The Red House and collections visit: https://brittenpears.org/explore/research-and-collections/collections/