Working with Home Educated Groups at Chelmsford Museum

Yvonne Lawrence, Chelmsford Museum, reflects on her developing work with home educated groups.

There is a large body of parents in Essex who elect to home educate their children. There are many reasons for this, and they are supported by Essex County Council and a range of self-led groups, some of whom organise formal learning sessions with Chelmsford Museums.

With museum education we are used to starting with very little prior information about the participants compared to a school teacher and when working with a group of home educated children this challenge is magnified because the age and ability range is very much larger, typically with participants aged between 4 to 12.  There may be additional special needs including those on the autistic spectrum, with ADHD, dyslexia or with social, behavioural or emotional difficulties.  Often there is a participant in the group who has a special interest in the subject who will be extremely knowledgeable alongside others who know much less.  In an ideal world we would like a full list of participants and any special needs and are working towards this, acknowledging that the situation is much more complex for the visit organiser than for a school.

Chelmsford Museum has been working in partnership with group organisers to ensure that home educated children are able to participate in our history, science and Arts Award sessions at both the main museum and at Sandford Mill. Our first big decision was to limit the group size to a maximum of 17 participants with whole group staying together during the session and led by one tutor.  Given that most participants come with an adult and perhaps a younger sibling or two, this still leads to more people in the room than a standard class and in retrospect we should perhaps have made the limit smaller-perhaps as few as ten participants.  But this would be comparatively expensive for parents/carers as we would still have to cover the tutoring costs and splitting them between fewer people means more cost per person.  Where the visit organiser wanted to book more than one session we explored ways in which younger children could book the morning session whilst older ones came to the afternoon session.  This was reasonably successful.

Home educated children have the luxury of learning at their own pace with a very flexible child-centred learning experience. Unlike a school with set break times and lunch hour, we found that the children seemed to be constantly grazing, eating snacks during the sessions.  The participants and younger siblings would then touch the artefacts, which really wasn’t doing the artefacts any good and posed a hygiene hazard.  We can’t just put our artefacts in a washing up bowl, after all!  So we worked with the group organiser to request that parents were advised of a no-eating rule in the sessions and why this was important, plus reinforcing the need to wash hands after eating.  We provided a trolley outside our education room for food and drinks; and we made a positively-worded request at the start of each session explaining why this was needed and and making it clear people were welcome to step out to eat whenever they wanted to.

To deal with the wide variety of ages, abilities and interests we adapted the format of the sessions to include a very short introduction and overview of what the session entailed with expectations for behaviour – participants and adults! People responded very positively and I think it helped everyone get the most out of the experience.  Typically setting expectations involves explaining the session format and establishing rules such as one person speaking at a time and putting their hand up if they wanted to ask a question during the introduction.  For parents it is worth mentioning active involvement, supervising their children, turning phones to silent and the eating-outside rule.  I always then check if that is OK with the group so we can all get the most out of the learning experience.  Fortunately the answer to that question has always been ‘yes’!

It can be hard to identify which children are taking part in the session so we have tried to set up a separate starter area for participants and parents/siblings. At the museum we often use foam mats on the floor for those taking part during the initial introduction, with parents/siblings seated behind and around them.  Once we establish our participants we start by asking a few questions to establish prior knowledge before introducing tables with a range of different activities linked to the topic.  It works well not to try to regiment the movement of participants as much as a school group, so we normally suggest the participants go off to explore the activities in any order giving an overall time limit to help people plan.  The tables have information cards for the adults with suggested activities, and the only advice we gave was to try to choose tables that weren’t too busy rather than all crowding around the same one.  There are times when we had to accept that a participant was finding it more interesting to sit in the corner playing games on their phone instead of taking part in the session.  They had their reasons, and we take the view that whilst it was our responsibility to provide suitable learning activities it was the participants’ responsibility to engage with them during the session and the supervising adults’ responsibility to intervene (or not) when it came to level of participation.

At the end of each session we come together to discuss what the participants had discovered and answer any questions that arose. Although most of our sessions normally run for two hours, timings are much more fluid with home educator groups and if we do finish a little earlier – or later – that is what we do.  At the end of each session, it is very rewarding to note the number of participants and parents who come up to us to thank us for running the session.  As one mum said to me recently “We appreciate what you are doing.  We know we aren’t the easiest groups to work with because we are all so different so thank you.” And that’s what makes it all worthwhile for us – being able to make that difference!

Autism and Museums

NAS-logo.jpg

Freelancer Jo Gillam has been supporting Chelmsford Museum to improve access for autistic visitors. Here she gives us an introduction to autism and changes museums can make…

World Autism Awareness Week (27th March-2nd April 2017) is a good time to consider how to make your museum more autism-friendly….

30 years ago, my brother was labelled as unfriendly, difficult, and having a ‘mental handicap’. Today, he’s described as having autism plus learning disabilities. Autism is certainly a word that many people recognise now but how many know what it means? How can your museum be more welcoming to people with autism and their families?

What is autism and who can have it?

Autism is a lifelong condition thought to be caused by a combination of genetics, brain development and part of the natural variety among brains. i.e. ‘neurodiversity’. It affects 1 in a 100 people in the UK – women as well as men. There’s no evidence that it’s more prevalent than before or that any ethnic or socio-economic group has a greater propensity to it than others.

Autism isn’t a learning difficulty, a learning disability, or a mental health problem. Some people with autism do have mental health issues, not least because they can find life extremely stressful. About 50% of people with autism have a learning disability. Sometimes this is severe but all people with autism can learn and develop with the right support. About 10% of people with autism have high intelligence (the preferred term is ‘high functioning’). Until recently, this was diagnosed as Asperger syndrome which is a term still commonly used. For some, far from being a disorder or disability, autism offers valuable abilities and unique perceptions. Examples of exceptional autistic contributors to society almost certainly include Mozart, Einstein and Turing.

How does autism affect everyday life?

Autism affects how a person processes information, relates to others, makes sense of the world and how they experience it through their senses. To people who don’t have autism, these differences are invisible. What they notice is behaviour caused by the difficulties created by a mis-match between autistic differences and the surrounding world. How people react to this behaviour makes a big difference to the emotional well-being of people with autism, who often feel excluded from social activities.

How can your museum help people with autism?

Some of the most effective changes you can make are also the cheapest!

  • Promote patience and understanding when someone behaves unexpectedly in your museum.
  • Limit the number of questions you ask and allow more time than may seem comfortable for the person to reply.
  • Be direct. People with autism commonly take things literally so try not to cause confusion by using statements like “I’ll be back in a second”.
  • Don’t feel offended if someone doesn’t engage with your friendly small talk as this is something people with autism can find uncomfortable.

Parents often feel that they are judged to be inadequate when their autistic child has a meltdown. The real reason may be that the child is being overloaded with sensory input. For an insight into how this feels, take a look at this powerful little film made by the National Autistic Society (NAS): Too Much Information

Small changes to your museum can make a big difference and help other visitors at the same time.

It can seem daunting to make your museum more autism-friendly, when autism is so diverse. After all, how do you manage hypo (low) sensitivity and hyper (high) sensitivity to certain stimuli such as light and sound within the same venue? The answer is flexibility and choice.

  • Make your light and volume settings adjustable. If this isn’t possible yet, provide visual and written information so that visitors can seek out or avoid particular areas.
  • Advertise times when your museum is most quiet or open it for special Early Bird/Night Owl sessions when you turn down/off some sensory experiences.
  • Ideally, offer a low sensory area where someone who feels overloaded can take a break.
  • Loan relaxing objects like stress balls and stimulating, sensory kits which can be carried around.

Most visitors or their carers will know what they find challenging and may bring their own aids such as ear defenders. At Chelmsford Museum, we offer free pairs just in case.

Changes made to help visitors with autism, often improve conditions for other people with access needs. Avoiding ‘busy’ floor or wall patterns, for example, also helps people who suffer from certain visual impairments, dementia, epilepsy or migraines.

Full and honest pre-visit information can be a key to unlocking future visits

Potential visitors with particular needs can come to expect poor access and so not consider coming. Consequently, providing clear, accessible pre-visit information (and advertising this) is crucial. For people with autism, who often find breaks from routine and unfamiliar situations intimidating, having floor plans, images and outlines of what they can expect at a museum, can make the difference between whether or not they visit.

Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum (London) are leading the way in autism accessibility. These and other examples are listed by blogger Tincture of Museum.

On a smaller scale, Chelmsford Museum is developing its own resources aimed at visitors with autism and their families. We’re working towards achieving the NAS’s Autism Friendly Award. I’m teaching the team how they can make the museum more autism-friendly and would be delighted to provide training elsewhere. We’re also holding an event for World Autism Awareness Day (1pm-4pm 2nd April 2017) aimed at everyone. It would be great to see you there!

For further information, try these organisations:

The National Autistic Society | – NAS

Autism in museums | Network Autism

Ambitious about Autism

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Jo Gillam, Freelance Heritage Professional

Mob 07754 130145   

Email: 1joprice@gmail.com

Twitter: @1accessforall

If you would like to learn more about how your museum can support people with autism, Jo will be talking about her work with Chelmsford at this event in June.

Snapping The Stiletto: Re-Examining Essex Collections

 

Image courtesy of Essex Police Museum

Image courtesy of Essex Police Museum

The Essex County Council Museum Development has secured a grant of £95, 445 from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund for a two year project working with museums across the county.

 

2018 is the Centenary of the of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave the first British women the vote, the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928 which gave all women the vote and the 50th anniversary of the Dagenham Ford Worker’s Strike. These important national and local anniversaries are serving as a catalyst to explore, record and celebrate the diverse and inspirational stories of Essex women.

For the purposes of this project, we are working with partners from across “historic Essex” including those areas which are now unitary authorities or part of London, thus enabling us to tell interpret both existing collections and the stories discovered through our research as part of the wider story.

We will research and record how Essex women’s lives have changed during the last century and celebrate the stories of individual and groups of women in the county, for example Suffrage campaigners and Dagenham strikers but also women whose stories aren’t yet well known. This may include but not be limited to women who were involved in World War II, gained qualifications at a time when most women were unable to access further education, who entered male dominated professions including the services, those who moved to Essex from around the world and made a home for themselves by overcoming language and cultural differences and those who have raised families during a time of changing expectations for their gender. By highlighting women’s contributions, we will add another layer of understanding to elements of history that the public are possibly more familiar with, for example WWII, and change their perceptions of what took place. Also, through telling the stories of inspiring Essex women, we hope to weaken the negative “Essex Girl” stereotype.

 

Image courtesy of Southend Museums

Image courtesy of Southend Museums

 

 

The project is part of an overarching strand of work called “Snapping the Stiletto: 100 Years of Change”. We will be shortly be submitting further funding applications for oral history and other work, so there are still plenty of opportunities for heritage organisations and other groups to get involved. We will also be recruiting a large number of volunteers during 2017.

 

For more information, to sign up for project updates or to learn how you can get involved in the project, email amy.cotterill@essex.gov.uk

 

 

 

Our museum partners for “Revisiting Essex Collections” are:

  • Braintree Museums
  • Brightlingsea Museum
  • Chelmsford Museum
  • Colchester and Ipswich Museums
  • The Combined Military Services Museum
  • Epping Forest District Museum
  • Essex Fire Museum
  • Essex Police Museum
  • The Museum of Power
  • Redbridge Museum, Ilford
  • Southend Museums Service

Thought and Notes: Museums Association Conference 2015

MA Conference 2015a

Sharon Heal presents statistics from the Code of Ethics consultation

Earlier this month, I attended my fourth  Museums Association conference. Several things struck me over the course the event. Firstly, the people care about making the sector better and stronger. Secondly, that we don’t have the answers on how to do that yet. Thirdly, more change is coming.

Big themes this year were ethics, diversity and the continuing changes happening in our sector.
The revised Code of Ethics was voted in. If you haven’t read it yet, I advise you to do so. Not only is it a cornerstone of accreditation but it’s a living, breathing document that should influence our everyday practice no matter the size of our museum. The code has been compiled in consultation with museum  staff and volunteers across the country. Given recent controversy over sales from collections, it is not surprising that good practice round disposals continues to be a key element. Reflecting 21st century practice the code also covers sponsorship and recommends that museums seek to work with partners whose priorities match their own.
Museums Change LivesSeveral sessions looked at diversity in the workforce. This is a debate that has been going on for several years and there are no easy answers. Many museums are actively looking for ways to change. Apprenticeships and other work-based training schemes do seem to have had some success, although it is too early to tell if the individuals taking part will continue in museum careers. Some people are concerned that creating additional temporary entry-level jobs when the sector is so competitive is a mistake. I believe that this is a debate that will continue for quite some time, but that it’s good that museums are trying new and different ways to recruit.
With councils being forced to tighten their purse-strings even more, and the Comprehensive Spending Review coming up at the end of the month, it sometimes feels like there’s little time or money for anything creative to happen in museums. However, there were some excellent case-studies which are well worth checking out. For example, Richard Gough from Ironbridge Gorge Museums Trust talked about corporate volunteering, which is something our own Museum of Power have good experience with. The Conflict Resolution session included some heart-breaking stories of how museums have the power to knit communities back together, such as the Historical Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina in Sarajevo, National Museums Northern Ireland and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. However, the session that really blew me away was “More Than Reminiscence” by Tunbridge Wells Museum and Canterbury Christ Church University. They’ve been doing some fantastic work with dementia groups and their model is easy and low-cost to follow. Have a look at their tool-kit and see if it’s something that you could use with your own collections.

Lego: An Ingenious Solution to A Display On A Budget

Dominic Petre from Ingatestone Hall shares his top-tip for displaying museum interpretation:

Displays at Ingatestone Hall

Some words of wisdom. Ingatestone Hall is a privately owned Tudor historic house that is still occupied by the family who built it. We are open for private events but also for general visits throughout the summer. When we threw open our doors to the public in 1992 we bought in a series of glass display cases to display all our small items of interest that were “hidden away in drawers”.

At that time our interpretation of the items was very simple. Each thing had a small label explaining what the item was – which seemed to work quite well. However, in recent years, we have become a little disenchanted with the way it appeared for several reasons:

  • It was fiddly to change the labels when academic knowledge changed making the information displayed wrong or at least misleading.
  • There was a ground swell of comments that the text size of the labels was too small to be read easily but increasing the size would mean that the cabinets would be more label than exhibit
  • Some of the exhibits were very small but had a lot we wanted to say about them making the label size disproportionate to the exhibit
  • And of course the labels were themselves deteriorating and becoming tatty

We decided to refresh the cases some time ago and decided that a fitting solution would be to number the individual exhibits and have a hand held guide referring to the numbered exhibit this, we felt, would solve a lot of the problems viz

  • The text size could be bigger
  • We could go into as much detail as we wanted
  • We could include transcripts of difficult documents to read
  • The cases them selves would be “sharper” and the labels would not distract from the objects themselves
  • We could even have different guide books (for example – one for adults and one for children, interpreting the items in different ways)

We then hit a minor problem – looking on-line for nice number blocks we discovered a number of museum supply companies that would indeed supply numbered blocks but they were all very expensive and well beyond what we would budget for such an exercise. We considered making our own (out of wood) but the result never struck us as professional enough – and so the project stalled.

Using a Lego brick to support a museum labelThen one day, when clearing up my son’s Lego I had a serendipitous idea. The sloping blocks would be ideal for this purpose. Using the on-line Lego shop, I got the correct sloping pieces in the right colour at a very good price. Using those with adhesive labels has I think produced a very professional and clean solution – I commend it to all.

Contemporary Collecting and Saving the 70s

Saving the 70s

Collecting historic items for our collections comes as second nature, but collecting from within living memory, or even our own life-time, can be difficult. How can we predict what will be of interest to museum visitors of the future? Museum freelancer Isobel Keith shares her experiences of  “Saving the 70s”, a contemporary collecting project that took place across Suffolk and Hertfordshire.

The 70s Saved…

During the course of two years, 11 museums and heritage organisations across Suffolk and Hertfordshire took part in an ambitious project – Saving the 70s. It was the second year, after receiving stage two funding from HLF, that things really got moving.

I joined the project team for stage two, supporting and assisting the museums in Suffolk over the course of a year, working closely with the two volunteer run museums. It was a brilliant experience, meeting and working with a varied bunch of lovely people and I certainly learnt a lot more about the 1970s that I anticipated.

It’s almost a shame that the project didn’t happen a little later, has anyone else spotted that there’s a rather big 70s revival going on in high street fashion at the moment? It would have been much easier to find outfits for events if it had.

Why the 70s?

The project itself was, in part, born out of the realisation that objects and stories from the 1970s were being sought after as reminiscence resources by organisations working with people with dementia. As the population ages, this demand will only increase.

It is also a period under represented in many museums. Very few of the participating organisations could identify any objects from the 1970s within their collections, yet the 70s were a significant period of change. In fact you could say the 70s revolutionised the modern world.

By the end of the 70s nearly every family enjoyed gathering around their own television set. In just over a decade television ownership nearly doubled. Supermarkets popped up and people experimented with fast food and ready meals. New genres of music were born, the first video games came out, women’s roles and rights, the three day week and so the list goes on.

At the core of this project was the need to focus on collecting memories and objects from the 1970s. I think it’s pretty easy to get caught up with ‘old stuff’ and sometimes we forget the need to collect more recent objects. And if you haven’t forgotten, the problem then becomes how do you collect it? How do you collect mass produced, generic objects with little or no local provenance, especially if you’re a local history museum (as many of the organisations involved were)? And how can you encourage people to donate those objects?

Contemporary collecting is a tricky soul. As Simon Knell aptly put it “Contemporary collecting is one of the most difficult of practices because of its overwhelming and multifaceted nature, and because we are collecting things that reflect our own society, which we know to be complex. Collecting historical material only seems easier because there is less of it, we know it less well and because historians have constructed narratives which value one thing above another” (Knell 2004, 34).

Indeed one of the difficulties many of the organisations faced was getting people to donate or loan objects in the first instance.

I believe this problem stems from a lack of understanding about what we do. People associate museums with old stuff because a considerable amount of the time that’s what we have on display. How often have you had someone offer a donation of something you already have five of? People donate objects based on what they know we collect, i.e. what’s on display. They don’t know about our hidden caves and labyrinth of boxes, AKA The Collection Store.

However, the objects did come and in the interim eBay helped us fill in the gaps. Many museums found that objects were donated after exhibitions. It seems that once the magic of a pedestal and glass case had been applied and with the plethora of 70s themed events the public began to understand what we were trying to do, but first we had to break down conceptions.

What to collect?

Saving the 70sEach museum had a different focus for their activity plan, whether it was digitising photographic collections, working with an archive, or recording oral histories. Their focus dictated the objects donated and collected, but in each case it was the associated memories and stories about those objects that made it relevant to their locale and collections development policies.

Haverhill and District Local History Group ran a reminiscence session at their local library and we took along a few objects and pictures with us. The most popular of these was a Green Shield stamp book. Every single person there connected with object printed in its’ glossy pages. Whether it was something their parents owned or something they had bought themselves, it provided a popular talking point for all involved.

A resounding success for all the organisations involved was the inclusion of an advert reel the History of Advertising Trust created. Full of wonderful (though thoroughly sexist in some cases) adverts from brands such as Hovis and Babycham, the reel proved incredibly popular. Everyone I saw watching it, stayed glued for the full 10 minutes laughing and commenting to each other throughout.

It is these shared experiences and histories that make working with objects and photographs from within living memory so rewarding – they enable visitors to explore their own lives and experiences through the objects.

As a volunteer from Halesworth & District Museum commented “When an exhibition is in someone’s life span… [it] becomes a participatory thing”.

What went well

One of the really positive aspects to come out of Saving the 70s were the connections museums made with their local communities. Each museum had a community partner, from day centres and colleges, to libraries and art shops, these community partners were integral to enriching the project. But they also created links with the wider community.

Halesworth & District Museum were able to hold a pop up shop exhibition Hot Pants in Halesworth in the high street. In one week they had 400 visitors, equivalent to a quarter of their annual footfall. Many local people dropped in whilst doing their shopping with no idea the museum was 5 minutes’ walk away.

Haverhill & District Local History Group were able to run a series of events to raise their profile in the community and forge relationships with their Library and Arts Centre and have continued to work with them.

We also made connections with each other. Working as part of a wider project with multiple organisations, we were able to share resources. From loaning objects to dressing up boxes, the shared comradery and experience between us all provided a supportive platform to work from.

In terms of what we learnt about contemporary collecting – people are interested and they do want to be involved, but unlike the proverbial ‘old stuff’ it can take a bit more effort to break preconceptions about what museums do, and communicate why their orange and avocado green objects and memories are actually really important.

After all it may have been called the Decade That Taste Forgot, but that doesn’t mean we should forget it.

The 11 museums and heritage organisation involved in Saving the 70s were:

  • Museum of East Anglian Life
  • Halesworth & District Museum
  • History of Advertising Trust
  • Moyse’s Hall Museum
  • Haverhill & District Local History Group
  • Mill Green Museum
  • Dacorum Heritage Trust
  • Garden City Collection – Letchworth
  • Hertford Museum
  • St Albans Museum
  • Stevenage Museum.

A Few Facts

  • Between November 2013 – November 2014 the project engaged with 79,387 people through a huge range of exhibitions, community consultations and events.
  • 193 volunteers engaged with the project, logging almost 584 volunteer hours’ worth equating to at least £49,262.50 in man-hours to the project partners
  • The project succeeded in partnering with SHARE Museums East to provide 18 formal training opportunities with 160 attendees. In addition to these the project orchestrated a further 40 informal mentoring and training sessions involving 56 people

Case Study: New Donation Box at Essex Police Museum

Donation box BEFORE the SHARED Enterprise Grant...

Donation box BEFORE the SHARED Enterprise Grant…

SHARED Enterprise is a HLF Catalyst-Funded project supporting museums throughout the East of England to explore new ways of generating income and to make better use of existing financial opportunities. Becky Wash, Curator of Essex Police Museum, talks about her recent experience of working with SHARED Enterprise and a step they’ve taken to increase their income.

The Increasing Individual Giving training session run by SHARED Enterprise allowed those on the course to apply for a grant of up to £500 to improve access to individual giving.

The Essex Police Museum costs £40,000 a year to run and has been self-funded for the last three years. The museum is a registered charity and has successfully found funding from online giving, gift aid and setting up a Payroll Giving Scheme.

The museum’s donations box – a small clear box that sat on a small table near the main entrance is the only donations box in the museum.

Although it did bring in some money we felt it was low down and easily missed by visitors.

The grant allowed us to apply for funding so we could purchase a new and improved box.

We looked at the variety of donations boxes available:

  • Donation Buckets
  • Charity Pots
  • Box with a hole for a coin or folded notes
  • Interactive donations box

Then we looked at the prices – and picked ourselves up from the floor!

We wanted something that looked professional but was affordable and meant something to our museum.

Interactive boxes are fun but they are normally filled with coppers rather than notes.

Someone suggested that we make a box from an old police helmet – but I wanted to make sure that we continued to use a transparent box.  It allows the visitor to see exactly how much is in it before they make their donation. There has been some research into the use of transparent donations boxes and this YouTube video explains a case study in more detail.

We have always and continue to leave a float of £10 in our donations box made up of a £5 note, £2 coin, 2 x £1 coins and 2 x 50p coins. It most certainly discourages any coppers (unlike our non-see through boxes which we leave at Essex Police Reception and the local corner shop). We often see a note or two in our box but the majority of coins that enter the box are gold.

So we went back to our original clear box – how could we improve it?

Essex Police Museum Donation Box

…and the donation box AFTER the grant

Our answer was to improve the box signage and to make the clear box prominent.

I contacted a carpenter friend of mine and explained what I wanted. The finished piece was a traditional looking Police Box measuring 85cm high, almost double the height of the original table.

The box most definitely stands out and we have had many positive comments, but it is early days yet to say whether the box has helped to increased donations to the museum.

The project cost £150 in total which also included the price of a new plastic box (with lock) and new signage (not seen in the photos).