Tullie House Goes East: Bringing the Romans to China


Since 2013 Tullie House has been working with the Zhou family, owners and operators of the Imperial Decree Museum (IDM) in Xuzhou and the No. 1 Scholar Museum in Suzhou, both in Jiangsu Province, China.  The parallels between the Roman collection at Tullie House and objects relating to the Han Dynasty at IDM were a key link between the two museums.

Object handling with officials

Object handling with officials. Photo courtesy of Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery

After a visit to Tullie House by Mr Zhou the Executive Director and his team in October 2014, engagement was identified as an area of museum practice that IDM wanted to explore further. This resulted in a personnel exchange in June 2015, with Andrew Mackay (Head of Collections & Programming) and Anna Smalley (Learning & Engagement Manager) visiting IDM.  We felt it was important to deliver something tangible that was of practical benefit to both organisations, so we chose to deliver a handling session that demonstrated how objects can be used to educate and inspire. For IDM and the No. 1 Scholar Museum it would provide an insight into engagement and learning techniques developed at a major regional museum; for Tullie House it would provide the opportunity to use our collection in a completely new and innovative way, as well as gauge the interest of a new audience in a key area of our collection.

We delivered our first workshop in Xuzhou with 21 local primary school children aged 10-11, selected for their language ability and interest in history. We created the session based on the MLA’s Inspiring Learning for All framework, focussing on building the pupil’s knowledge of Roman history but also encouraging them to find enjoyment, creativity and inspiration in the object handling process.

As part of the session the children took part in a range of activities, including handling objects such as pottery, jewellery, coins and glassware. The children also explored Latin and Roman writing using real and replica wooden writing tablets, and had a go at writing in Latin and comparing the results with English and Chinese characters. Lastly the children investigated Roman costume, handling real Roman footwear and dressing up in replica costume. The pupils then created their own role play about daily life in Roman Carlisle using the objects they had handled during the session as inspiration.

The children found the experience of object handling incredibly inspiring: none of the pupils had ever handled genuine historical artefacts before, and the added factor of them being from a country thousands of miles away was of considerable excitement. We adopted the same object handling techniques as we would in our primary school workshops in Carlisle, stressing to the children not to worry about giving wrong answers: we wanted their ideas and to know how they felt about the objects. They responded well to this approach, offering a range of very creative ideas about what the objects were used for and what they were made from. We encouraged them to use their senses, looking closely with magnifying glasses, feeling for different textures and even smelling the objects.

Feedback from children, teachers and staff at IDM was universally positive.  The teachers were very impressed with the session and were keen to take part in workshops like this at IDM on a regular basis.  This was the first time museum staff had seen this kind of engagement activity and observing it directly was an invaluable experience for them as this is something they are now developing at their own venue.  The session attracted considerable interest from Chinese media, with local newspapers and TV crews documenting the whole process, highlighting the unusual and innovative nature of this type of experience in China.

Xuzhou Primary School Children after workshop at Imperial Decree Museum_Photo courtesy of Tullie House Museum

Xuzhou Primary School Children after workshop at Imperial Decree Museum.  Photo courtesy of Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery

We also delivered presentations to Museology and Tourism students at Jiangsu Normal University. My presentation focussed on our engagement activities with children, young people, families and community groups. After the presentations we delivered a short object handling session with the students. As with the primary school children, their amazement at being able to hold and interact with artefacts cannot be overstated! They particularly enjoyed handling the glass jug and the writing tablets.

In the No. 1 Scholar Museum in Suzhou we delivered an adapted version of the Roman workshop, with the added element of comparisons with Han Dynasty technology and costume. The students were a mixture of members of Suzhou University’s English Club and students from Singapore with strong English and an interest in history.  Once again the object handling was the most popular activity: the students loved wearing the gloves and handling the objects directly, and were particularly impressed by the jewellery.

Tullie House_Chinese Newspaper

As in Xuzhou the event attracted considerable media interest, with local TV crews and newspaper journalists staying for the duration of the event. Staff at the No. 1 Scholar Museum were very pleased with the event, and found that seeing us deliver something so successfully has given them the confidence to pursue this line of activity going forward, as well as develop deeper engagement activity for students.

The trip really cemented the partnership between Tullie House and the Zhou family, and we are now planning to further develop this with a children’s art work exchange and the loan of collections. In 2017 we are hoping to display a selection of artefacts from the IDM’s collection alongside a Chinese New Year Festival and engagement programme for adults and children.


As part of their joint cooperation, Tullie House signed an MOU with the Xuzhou Guishan Hill Scenic Area, which you can download for reference HERE.


Anna Smalley, Learning & Engagement Manager, Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery