The Commission Model in practice
A Chemist’s Herb Garden, for the Black Country Living Museum
Age group: Year 5 (9-10 years old). A junior school in Walsall (UK). Key Stage 2
On a street in the Black Country Living Museum, there is a recreation of a traditional chemist’s shop, which once belonged to a real chemist, Emile Doo.
The museum had a problem. The garden at the back of the shop was overgrown and neglected. They wanted to turn the space into a typical 1920s physic garden. Mr. Doo might in fact have had a garden at the back of his shop, to grow herbs for medicines.
At the time, David Allen from Midland Actors Theatre was working with a Y5 class in New Invention Junior School. David negotiated the details of the commission with Mel Weatherly from BCLM: the class would come up with proposals for a design for the new herb garden.
How we began
We chose to begin as we might with a Mantle of the Expert project – by setting up a fictional “enterprise” with the class. (This approach was also used by Luke Abbott in a training session with the Erasmus+ team – see here.) In this case, they were a team of Landscape Gardeners. They chose the name “Gardens ‘R’ Us.” The first “commission” was in fact fictional: to design a Japanese tea garden for a tea shop in London. To do this, they also studied Japanese tea rituals. The aim here was to develop in the class an understanding of what is involved in designing a garden – and a sense of “expertise.” Then came the commission from BCLM.
The “curriculum map”
The commission, coming as it did from a museum, demanded rigour and responsibility, to make sure that the garden would be historically accurate and “authentic.” (In this way, standards were "built in.")
This involved the class in research into: how medicines were produced in a traditional chemists like Mr Doo’s; a knowledge of the kinds of herbs he would have used; the growing conditions that different plants require; the layout of herb gardens, etc.
For the class teacher, Sadie Dorricott, the commission enabled her to meet certain targets in KS2 Science: plant types, structure, habitat, growth and nutrition, etc. This is an example of how the curriculum can be “folded in” to work on a commission.
Tasks to fulfil the commission included:
1. Identifying methods and equipment used in a traditional chemist’s. This included practical activities such as grinding herbs into a powder in a mortar and pestle, and learning how to use a pill-maker.
2. Researching the herbs used in traditional medicines – and creating a “recipe book.” Plants included: fennel; juniper; rosemary; sage; peppermint; etc.
3. Visiting Erasmus Darwin’s house in Lichfield, to look at the layout of a herb garden.
4. Researching the growing conditions required by different plants (sunlight, soil etc.), so we could decide where the herbs should be placed in the garden.
5. Producing designs and models of the planned herb garden.
6. Rehearsing our presentations for the final "publication."
The final master plan for the garden was the responsibility of the curatorial and gardening teams at Winterbourne House and Gardens, the University of Birmingham. The class visited Winterbourne and presented their proposals to the design team, and members of the Royal Society of Chemists.
After the garden behind Doo’s chemist had been cleared, a special ceremony was arranged, when the class visited the museum, and took part in planting the plants and herbs. The new herb garden was born.
Below: The final master plan for the garden - and as it looks today. The herb garden commission was used by David Allen as the basis for a session with the Erasmus+ team, during the Training Week - see here.