Playing with History display celebrates Bodleian's new collection of board games and pastimes

7 January 2016

The Bodleian Libraries has recently acquired a major collection of board games and pastimes dating from 1800 to the year 2000 and will showcase a selection of them in a new display exploring how games have been used to teach history.

Playing with History opens on 8 January 2016 in the Weston Library and will feature 22 games that show how children in Victorian and Edwardian Britain learned about the world around them.

The games selected for the display represent a tiny slice of the rich and varied collection of almost 1500 board games and pastimes that collector Richard Ballam recently donated to the Libraries.

Image of Tar of all the Weathers game, John Johnson Collection, Bodleian LibrariesPlaying with History will focus specifically on how games were used to teach children about three topics: kings and queens, the British world view, and war and conflict in the early 20th-century. Visitors can see a fascinating range of games and teaching aids dating from 1800 to 1925 including card games, wooden blocks, dissected puzzles (a precursor to the jigsaw), glass-topped puzzles, strategy games and board games played with a spinning top called a teetotum.

Curator Julie Anne Lambert

'Games are fascinating because they hold a mirror to society,' said the display's curator Julie Anne Lambert, Librarian of the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Libraries. 'Games which aim to teach history are particularly interesting as it is impossible to take an unbiased view of the past or the present, so the images, text and format of the games reveal much about the attitudes and perspectives that were prevalent at the time.'

The display features games that are rich in symbolism, such as Tar of All Weathers, a game of empire which shows Queen Victoria resplendent at the head of her colonies in Africa and Asia. The conflict section of the display includes games such as Suffragetto, which describes itself as 'an original and interesting game of skill between Image of 'Krom' game, John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Librariessuffragettes and policemen,' and war games such as the The Krom, a complex strategy game published during World War I, marketed as 'the greatest of all indoor games.'

Beyond the games highlighted in the upcoming display, the wider Ballam Collection represents a new resource for scholars, particularly those interested in social history and the history of games. The collection contains a wide range of games from the 19th and 20th centuries from games such as The Produce and Manufactures of the Counties of England and Wales, Spellicans (also known as Pick up Sticks) and Fox and Geese to modern day classics such as Trivial Pursuit, Dingbats, Taboo and Pictionary.

In addition to board games, it also includes game accessories such as teetotums and metal spinners, counters and markers, score pads and dice. Early board games were often supplied cheaply without these items so people tended to own a generic set of pieces that could be used with a range of games.

The newly-acquired Ballam Collection is not the only collection of games and pastimes held by the Bodleian Libraries. The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, one of the largest and most important collections of printed ephemera in the world, also includes games, in the form of both artefacts and single sheets. Many of these Image of Suffragetto game, John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Librariescan be seen on the Bodleian's online image portal Digital.Bodleian. The Bodleian previously held an exhibition titled Children's Games and Pastimes in 2006, which showcased highlights from the John Johnson Collection and the Opie Collection of Children's Literature, which includes 20,000 children's books printed between the 16th and 20th centuries.

The Playing with History display is free and runs from 8 January to 6 March 2016. A special touch screen in front of the display will allow visitors to try their hand at playing a digital version of one of the games and to learn more about all the games on display.

Richard Ballam will also be giving a lunchtime talk about his games and pastimes collection on 20 January in the Weston Library. For more information and to book a free place, visit our What's on website.

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