Many of our guests – young and old – get confused about Sovereign Hill. Some people think that it is a theme park because panning for gold, eating lollies and riding in horse-drawn carriages is so much fun. However, Sovereign Hill is actually a museum, meaning it is a place where Ballarat’s history is studied, artefacts are collected, and Australia’s gold story is shared with visitors. Most museums tell their stories through displays in glass cases, but we teach visitors about the past through living exhibits.
Why does Sovereign Hill do this?
The first part of the answer challenges us to think about the purpose of studying history – why learn about the past? History helps us understand who we are; it explains why we speak the language we do, why we dress a certain way etc., and it also helps us understand the wider world and our place in it. It teaches us to avoid repeating the mistakes that others have already made, and to appreciate all of the good things about 21st century life. History also helps us see that there are other ways of living, of organising our society, of thinking about ourselves, and that things can and do change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Also let’s not forget all of the weird and wonderful characters, events, technologies and fashions from the past that make people of all ages giggle and gasp!
Why is Sovereign Hill a museum with living exhibits such as costumed people, fragrant horse poo and a creek complete with real gold? Because we think this is the most engaging and exciting way to learn about history. When you step through our gate you are sent 160 years back into the past, to a world of dirty miners, daggy troopers (policemen), and impractically-dressed but pretty ladies in big crinolines. Instead of looking at a display in a glass case, you get to talk to our costumed staff to learn about the past – do stop to have a chat, they are all very friendly!
Play is another important part of our living museum – try your hand at gold panning, go bowling, or make a candle. You can also taste history here – try some goodies from the bakery, or a lolly, or five. Lastly, you can smell the past – the lovely perfumes of the Apothecary (known in modern times as a pharmacy/ chemist) on Main Street were actually believed to prevent sickness! You will have so much fun in our museum that you won’t even realise you are learning. We believe that is the best way to make learning about the gold rush era stick in your head.
Of course not all of our exhibits are completely accurate for very practical reasons. If our museum really smelt like Ballarat did during the gold rush, you wouldn’t come. Nobody would! In the very early days after gold was discovered here in 1851, there were no sewerage pipes… You couldn’t flush away “your business”; you just tipped your chamber pot out wherever you could. By law you had to dig a hole to pour your poop down, but sometimes such muck just ended up on the street, along with the piles of horse and sheep manure. Talking of sheep, historians estimate that about 1000 sheep per day were walked into Ballarat to be butchered and eaten during the busiest part of the gold rush. This led to rotting scraps lying in huge piles next to the butchers’ shambles (shop), and this meant flies! I hope you agree that we have made the right decision in cleaning history up a little.
The most important thing we want you to do during a visit to Sovereign Hill is empathise with the people who were here 160 years ago. When you empathise with someone you try to put yourself in their shoes, and see the world through their eyes. When you walk around our Chinese Camp, try to imagine you were a Chinese gold miner living here in 1855. What was life like for you? As you walk around the tents, imagine you were a woman with 4 children living on the diggings while your miner husband hasn’t found any gold. How would your family survive?
One of our favourite education sessions that school students enjoy is called “Gold Fever”. Maybe your class has visited us to play it, and you remember what it felt like to be a miner getting picked on by the nasty troopers. By competing to be the richest, and therefore, most successful miners, teams have to work together, be a little sneaky about Gold Licenses, and keep their eyes on the dodgy bankers. These are all problems Ballarat’s miners had to deal with on a daily basis. This game is all about teaching students to empathise with others and to understand how different life was in the past.
So, museums exist to teach people about history, while also teaching skills like empathy, critical thinking and chronology (putting historical events in order and understanding how one event often causes the next). Do you think Sovereign Hill does a good job at teaching visitors about history?
Links and References:
What is a museum? – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum
Why go to a museum? - http://colleendilen.com/2009/07/31/10-reasons-to-visit-a-museum/
Why study history? – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLE-5ElGlPM
Studying History is important – http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/why_history_matters.html
A great YouTube Chanel dedicated to teaching History – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX6b17PVsYBQ0ip5gyeme-Q
Sesame Street explain empathy – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_1Rt1R4xbM
For teachers; empathy theory – https://www.ted.com/talks/jeremy_rifkin_on_the_empathic_civilization
Should museums teach facts or skills?: http://museumquestions.com/2015/01/26/schools-and-museums-can-museums-teach-content-to-school-groups/
The National Centre for History Education (Australian Government) on empathy – http://www.hyperhistory.org/index.php?option=displaypage&Itemid=794&op=page