By Dr Lorna Robinson
Eight years ago I launched a new charity called The Iris Project. Its aim was to bring the broad and exciting discipline of classics in all its forms into state schools. Over these past eight years we have developed a range of projects and worked in many hundreds of schools with thousands of children, as well as running schemes for adult learners too.
But one of the things which Iris has lacked, due to very limited funds, is a home from which to operate. We receive many kind donations of books, of replica and real artefacts, and more besides, and it seemed a great shame that these items were not housed somewhere accessible — to be used and enjoyed by communities of learners.
Alongside this, I had become very aware, from working with local schools and living in the east Oxford community myself, that while Oxford is a city well-known for its magnificent buildings and museums, there are very many children and adults who have never been to them, and often feel alienated from the other side of the city. I felt, therefore, that there was a need for a centre which would be a local, reassuring place, where people could feel comfortable visiting and taking part, as well as being a stepping stone to encouraging people to visit other learning centres and museums.
So at the start of 2013 I decided to take the bull by the horns and see if a new centre could be created. A local East Oxford comprehensive school, Cheney, with whom we have worked a lot in the past, expressed a very keen interest, and so after a few months of negotiation we secured a large classroom space. Cheney school is the only secondary state school in the city which offers Latin on the curriculum, and has done so successfully for many years.
We started by making plans for decorating the space: if it was going to be an exciting and vibrant place, then it needed to reflect that in its surroundings. It also needed to show how it connected with the city, and especially the east of the city. Those who know east Oxford will know that there are a lot of eye-catching wall murals painted here and there, as well as other surprising features such as a giant shark plunging into the rooftop of a house in Headington. There is also the Mini factory, a crucial part of east Oxford history. We wanted to incorporate all these things, so we settled on the idea of merging scenes from around Oxford city with classical stories.
We've often found that the stories from the ancient world are the most universally effective way of introducing classics – many children and most adults will have encountered some of these stories somewhere before and, with any luck, found them fascinating. Our largest and longest running project, the Literacy through Latin scheme, is rooted in the idea of using myth and storytelling to deliver Latin a way that all children (and adults!) can relate to. So it seemed the perfect way of representing and expressing the centre.
We commissioned Soham De, our immensely talented in-house illustrator and artist, to paint a series of striking wall and ceiling murals which merge locations across Oxford city with classical myths. We added some beautiful bookshelves, rugs, chests, mugs, display cases for our many artefacts, and we even have a sofa is on its way! We also have a good set of classics-themed board games for anyone who wants to drop in and play.
We also put a display case in the lobby of the school itself, so everyone who visits the reception can be alerted to the presence of the centre, and be aware of what it has to offer. The display cabinet currently houses replica Roman lamps, a wax tablet, and an original catapult shot, very well preserved and found at Chester. That one, unsurprisingly, has been a particular hit with the pupils!
We have been enormously grateful to have had the support of the University of Oxford Faculty of Classics, and especially its classics outreach officer Mai Musie in making this happen. We’ve recently recruited a team of undergraduates and postgraduates to deliver exciting sessions and workshops, and many academics have come forward to generously offer their time and expertise to deliver talks.
Mythical beasts, ancient Athens, Roman art, artefacts handling sessions, debating, and beginners Latin and Greek classes are just some of the many workshops and courses the new centre will be offering from October. Others include family learning sessions at weekends, as well as introduction to positive psychology for teenagers using the classics, and we are also inviting a number of outside speakers, ranging from experts in the Archaeology of Oxford to storytellers, theatre performers, philosophers, dancers and everything in between.
The Centre is due to be formally opened on 24th October with a festival, followed by a talk by Professor Mary Beard. There will be stalls, theatre, Roman and Greek inspired food and drink, and an opportunity to meet and chat to everyone who's been involved in making this new community classics centre come into being. A schedule of events for its first term is available to view on our website and and you can follow the centre on Facebook to keep up to date with daily news.
If you get a chance, we warmly invite you to come and experience some of what the centre has to offer. We really hope to see you there.