Celts at Polmont Young Offenders Institute: a community engagement project

Over the course of six weeks, Community Engagement has collaborated with Fife College to run a learning course at Polmont Young Offenders Institute, near Falkirk. Polmont is a specialised institute for young male offenders aged 16 to 21 (up to 23 in some cases), who also offer a comprehensive programme of learning and skills development opportunities for the young men during their stay, often leading them to gain credits towards SQA Accreditations.

Inspired by the fantastic and thought-provoking exhibition Celts, currently on at the National Museum of Scotland until 25 September 2016, this was a great opportunity to bring the exhibition, and the ideas and learning opportunities behind it, to them, hopefully enhancing the work the excellent Fife College learning team already do. I personally felt that the topic of Celts, sometimes a controversial one, would pique their interest. Being brought up in Scotland, they would no doubt have come across images, symbols and ideas linked to what it means to be a ‘Celt’ and what people associate this with both visually and culturally – for a lot of people this is might be tattoos, barbarians and the jewellery shops on the Royal Mile. As the exhibition shines a new light on this subject, I hoped this would give them some thought-provoking insights into how the term has come about and unravel some of the myths surrounding it.

The Hunterston brooch.
The Hunterston brooch.

During my first session with two learning groups studying art and history, I broadly introduced the topic to them, getting their ideas on what they thought the term ‘Celts’ meant and thinking ahead towards future sessions. I was really impressed with how much they already knew about both the history and art, given that the exhibition covers a long period of time. Words such as ‘abstract’ and ‘art nouveau’ were used confidently, and many knew a fair bit or were keen to find out more about the Romans’ dealings with the Celts. I explained that the next museum session would be led by Dr Fraser Hunter, who would be able to answer all their questions fully. Excited that the author of the book they had been looking at (they have a copy of Celts, art and identity) was coming out to talk to them, I really felt their enthusiasm for the subject and that we had already encouraged them to think about the main themes of the exhibition.

St Ninians’s Isle Chape.
St Ninians’s Isle Chape.

The learning tutors in history and art have been fantastic at supporting the course from week to week, exploring and discussing the topic and getting inspiration for creative projects. When Fraser visits, they plan to invite more young men and the library tutors to his talk, so they can think about ways in which literacy can also be supported through the project.

We will also be looking at Celtic replica handling objects, and hearing from Dr Martin Goldberg on the influence of Christianity on Celtic art and later Revivalism period. Very exciting and inspiring work ahead!

Celts is a major exhibition, organised in partnership with the British Museum, unravels the complex story of the different groups who have used or been given the name ‘Celts’ through the extraordinary art objects they made and used. Showing until 25 September http://www.nms.ac.uk/celts

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