"History Houses" are part of a local history research project centered on Brandenburg in 1945. The project, created to mark the fiftieth anniversary of liberation, was designed to motivate students, teachers and others to do independent local research. About sixty projects have been conducted in classrooms, on project days and in non-school settings. The projects included History Houses, exhibitions, archival dossiers and flyers.
The project "History Houses to Explore" is among the many events, handouts and recommendations offered by the Regionale Arbeitstelle für Ausländerfragen, Jugendarbeit und Schule, Brandenburg e.V. (RAA) [Regional Centers for Foreigners' concerns, Youth work and School in Potsdam, Brandenburg] to promote local history studies about the year 1945 in the state of Brandenburg.
"History houses" have special importance for work with and by children and teenagers in school and non-school environments as well as in continuing education programs for teachers. These unusual educational materials were developed and produced in cooperation with the Pädagogisches Museum [Educational Museum] in Berlin.
Concept, Specifications and Initial Experiences
Five individual hand-made picture and textbooks are produced from cardboard and pasteboard in various sizes and shades of gray [see Visuals]. When properly displayed, they create the impression of a street in front of a landscape of ruins. The history houses -- silhouettes of undamaged and half-destroyed houses with a street in front of them -- were conceived and designed by the costume and stage designer Olga Lunow. These outlines are then applied to individual topics, such as a barracks for the section Kriegsende [The War Ends]; the ruins of an apartment building for the segment Überleben [Survival]; a half-destroyed school building for Schule in Trümmern [School in Ruins]; another school building for the topic Schule im Nationalsozialismus [Schools under the Nazis]; and a street which unfolds as a road for refugees for the topic Flucht und Vertreibung [Flight and Expulsion]. Windows and gaps in the house facades allow glimpses of the interiors and encourage curiosity about the contents of these houses.
Every double page presents a specific subject [see Visuals]. Each book was limited to a maximum of ten double pages, so that the reader could digest a topic comfortably in a short period of time.
Similar to visiting an exhibit, viewers can first gain an impression of the rooms, and if something catches their eye, they can immediately explore that item. The texts and photographs appeal to the visually oriented as well as the text-oriented visitor; they also appeal to those who want to touch something.
The numerous opportunities to touch, fold, pull, or take something out are not diversions, but ways of focusing attention for independent learning and the development of individual questions about history. The design of the books is based on content and is intended to make the subject interesting. This applies to working with the history houses. Since the books appeal to the sense of touch, they counteract detached intellectual reactions to the texts and photographs. An emotional response -- such as curiosity about what was hidden, the joy of discovering coded or unknown information, surprise about picture/picture or picture/text contrasts, amazement or confusion about specific visual information, or thoughtfulness -- can provide the impetus to learn more about this period of German and European history. The goal is to awaken interest because of personal involvement rather than because the curriculum mandates it. We expect that this interaction with history houses will awaken curiosity and discovery and lead to independent local history research about the war and postwar periods.
Each history house is complemented by an "archives" dossier [see Visuals], which contains additional sources and supplementary material. There are twelve books selected for the topic Kriegsende [The War Ends] in a book "box." There is also an extensive bibliography for young readers with suggestions about novels and short stories about daily life during the Nazi period, persecution, resistance, the end of the war, imprisonment, flight, and the postwar period, as well as references to additional literature.
Function of History Houses
On the one hand, historical information found in the history houses and related archival dossiers can be used as a basis for independent inquiries. On the other hand, these materials assist individual research by placing local documents and survivor testimonies in a broader historical context.
The history houses either confirm or challenge previous knowledge and eyewitnesses' experiences and opinions of local history. This confrontation permits discussion about different interpretations of the same historical events and encourages discussion about the political implications of different interpretations.
The purpose of the history houses is to stimulate local historical studies as well as to provide tangible material for educational work with children and teenagers. The history houses facilitate work on contemporary history topics, enable individual learning, and provide models for the presentation of independent research.
Use of History Houses at School
During the first six months of the project, the history houses and supplementary materials were lent to thirty-two schools in the state of Brandenburg. The number of student groups that spent an average of three to four hours working with them is actually higher, since the materials were passed around the schools and also used by teachers in specific subjects and at parents meetings.
The history houses provided students in the classroom and in project groups with starting points for independent research and product-oriented work and also motivated already existing projects. The range of responses included: adapting the houses for local history projects; making collages of photographs and texts; creating wall newspapers; preparing "historic" newspaper reports; annotating maps with the locations of events; preparing documentation about factories, concentration camps, streets, apartment buildings, military barracks, bunkers, and the fate of local Jewish residents, and even making a replica from dough showing the path taken by refugees. It is clear that the youngsters were curious and enjoyed this research, despite the fact that many of these projects required considerable time and energy outside formal classroom settings.
History houses appeal to various interests and needs. They leave it completely open as to how an individual will use these materials.
The students' work was recast as a traveling exhibition entitled "Schüler entdecken Geschichte am Ort in Brandenburg - 1945" ["Students Discover Local History in the State of Brandenburg - 1945"], which has also traveled to schools in Brandenburg. The history houses are now also available to schools in Berlin.