A new “Companion Novel” in the trenches of the First World War
After building the first set of prototypes, the next challenge is to test the prototypes in a different surrounding, charged with different content. MeSch consortium partner Museo della Guerra chose the Companion Novel prototype to adapt to their needs and content.
Building on the experience gained at Sheffield’s General Cemetery, we started to think about the possibility of adapting the Companion Novel, a prototype designed and developed by the meSch team at Sheffield Hallam University, for the visit to the fortified camp of Nagià Grom. In particular, our idea concerns the possibility of reusing the traditional teaching materials the Museum has prepared for activities with schools to create the Companion Novel’s contents.
The War Museum and schools
Museo della Guerra, The War Museum, offers educational activities adapted to the different ages of the students, the subject matter or the type of activity proposed (workshops, museum itineraries, excursions in the local area). During the activities, which are run by the museum staff, worksheets and books containing documents, photos and maps are used, and exercises are proposed. The materials are then taken by teachers for a continuation of the activity at school. The educational activities take place in the rooms of the museum, in the workshop (a specially equipped classroom in the museum), in the local area (visits to monuments or trenches) or directly at the school.
The trenches of Mount Nagià Grom
Before the outbreak of the First World War, Trentino was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the mid-nineteenth century they began to fortify the border with the Kingdom of Italy: between 1860 and 1914 numerous forts and hundreds of miles of trenches were built.
The fortified camp of Mount Nagià Grom, between Riva del Garda and Rovereto, was part of the defence of southern Trentino. In spring 1915, trenches, caves and barracks for the accommodation of troops, warehouses for materials, field kitchens, observation posts and artillery positions were built on the mountain’s summit.
Since 2001 the site has been completely restored and made visitable thanks to the work carried out by a group of volunteers (the Alpini of Mori). The area is currently the destination of First World War enthusiasts and tourists, as well as the many schools that visit the site with the educational staff of the War Museum.
The teaching experience in the trenches of Nagià Grom
For years, the museum has offered schools an activity involving a morning visit to the trenches of Nagià Grom, followed by an afternoon visit to the museum. The goal is to help children understand the organisation of the front and to encourage reflection on the conditions the soldiers faced during the First World War.
The students are accompanied by educational staff and have access to worksheets with photos, maps and diary entries. The activity aims to deeply involve the children as they interact with the documents and analyse what remains in the area.
The itinerary is organised into stages: each stage is devoted to the analysis of a particular artefact or document on a specific theme (logistics, war in the mountains, military events, the evacuation of the country and refugees, the postwar period, …). Once back at school, the teacher can continue the activity through the book or through the information on the site www.trentinograndeguerra.it (managed by the War Museum).
From educational activities to the Companion Novel
The educational activity organised by the War Museum in the trenches of Nagià Grom follows a precise path: the museum guide accompanies the students along a predetermined circuit, which is divided into stages. A map of the fortified camp is reproduced in the book provided to students.
The stages can be thought of as hotspots, i.e. points where the group can stop and analyse a given artefact (a trench, field kitchens, a cistern, an artillery position, a crater from an explosion…).
Each hotspot is connected to a specific topic that the museum guide addresses by referring not only to what can be seen in the area but also to documents, photographs and diary entries found in the educational material.
Everything mentioned so far can be adapted to the prototype of the Companion Novel.
This, however, raises a few issues:
- For the Companion Novel the sequence of hotspots cannot be binding: classes usually follow the same path, but in reality the topics can also be addressed in a different sequence. Single visitors, with the Companion Novel and map of the location, can choose their own route and at each hotspot listen to a specific explanation;
- The educational path follows a single narrative strand (the experience of soldiers during the war). Instead, in the Companion Novel different narrative strands could be introduced (an autobiographical recount rather than an “official” story; the experience of civilians; a nature trail; curiosities…);
- The content of the course for schools is designed for a particular age and for a homogeneous group, which has prior knowledge, shared experiences, and common expectations and attitudes; in the case of Companion Novel these contents must be reviewed to take different users into account;
- The archiving phase on the meSch platform of documents, photographs and diary excerpts, already prepared for the museum’s teaching materials, should be considered with particular attention. The documents are filed in a different way (the photos are stored in a CMS, diary excerpts or descriptive texts are managed as a Word file and are therefore more difficult to recover ). Also, on rare occasions, the museum curator may reuse the same materials with a simple “copy-paste”, although it is generally necessary to adapt the content to the specific situation;
- The post-visit phase calls for particular attention: after visiting the trenches, the visitor should be able to regain access to the contents heard along the way and have further insights by visiting the museum’s website. How to organise the post-visit phase and what materials to offer must be considered.
Material Encounters with digital Cultural Heritage