Top of the Class – A Museums Association and Group for Education in Museums Seminar

In April, Phil Ainsley of the East Anglian Railway Museum attended this MA/GEM run seminar day looking at museums and schools. Phil was able to attend due to a grant from Essex Cultural Development. Here are his thoughts on the day:

I was immersed into a lecture theatre filled with representatives from all over England, including some heavy weights such as British Museum and Library – yet we all, big and small, have similar challenges to face. Maintaining school visits being one of them.

Museums have traditionally found a relatively easy connection between education and their ability to offer schools visits. Times have changed significantly recently, with schools adhering to the scriptures of a revised chronological curriculum. Museums need to maintain or increase educational visit numbers for income.

A disruptive disconnect had taken place through the process of change. Schools staff are pressed by their auditor (Ofsted) to satisfy up-rated professional standards.  Museum’s are being disadvantaged by the need to satisfy demonstrable learning outcomes.

Schools and academies are increasingly run by more independently,  it was widely reported no cosy relationship exists – anywhere!  New alliances will be built up on individual relationships, as they are re-established then these connections should be cherished.

Most educational advance is delivered without outside visits – it takes a leap of faith stepping outside and offering children a visit. Heritage learning has a big strength, as it links the visitor away from C21 life into unfamiliar territory, forcing a learning or enquiring mind set . As there may be a lesser number of electronic distractions this is a plus! Museums are a place where the young may interact with “inspiring adults” who can enthuse, stimulate thought, and demonstrate. Through unusual objects, show children a contrast to the familiar and everyday

Schools visits are almost exclusively undertaken a primary age children, while many might like to enthuse an older age range, is was universally accepted that is a tough nut to crack. So don’t fret and deliver what you are not comfortable with. Schools offerings should be delivered with consistency, so it was recommended that your collection must be the prime focus –  your curatorial task is to find the link between collection objects and educational goals (noted below).

A museum visit should have some outcomes, it may be it re-enforces what’s been introduced at school, or an opportunity to see new objects or see new activity that can’t be seen in a school building. You may want to pose a question at the beginning of a visit to be answered towards the end.

Visits therefore are more of a lifestyle choice of the schools teaching staff promoter (normally a subject co-ordinator) and the head to sanction the visit.

Best practice is to find historical themes that are not set in any one time period, as the recent changes teach history chronologically. Therefore sweet spots to concentrate on include:

  • In living memory
  • Local History
  • A significant turning point in history

Some school measures may include attention to

  • Spiritual, Moral, Social and British values
  • Heritage
  • Diversity

Which if demonstrated by your collection, will give the necessary specific curriculum value required back at school.

Post visit evaluation therefore is of value to ensure learning took place. Certainly a feedback form – what may be developed together make a stronger connection – even better a dialogue should take place – “How was it for you?”

An alternative approach is a form of outreach through use of loan boxes these can be promoted by web sites, or a link out to “Flickr” ( or any alternative photo-sharing website).

As children are our target audience, then their questions, thoughts and feedback is most important. Adult museum and teaching staff need to concentrate on their observations experiences and questions arising from the day’s visit.

Homework on schools.

Schools with the highest pupil premium may be good candidates for alternative methods of teaching away from the school building. You could read the OFSTED report on schools to identify good points and potential weakness. It can be the weakness you try and address – in this find a path to improve their score.

Normally there would be a named teacher leading in a specific subject area. School newsletters may report on previous visits – in all cases the first person to speak with is probably the school secretary – so never forget them!

Teachers time is a very finite resource, it is suggested any contact is in the “twilight hours” (immediately after lessons 3.00-4.30)

For details of forthcoming Museums Association events, visit their website. The GEM annual conference is in September and details can be found here.

If there is a training day or event that your museum could benefit from attending, but requires financial assistance contact your MDO to discuss potential funding sources.

Museums as Learning Spaces

Museums as Learning Spaces

On Monday 16th March, SHARE Museums East ran “Museums as Learning Spaces” at the Museum of Power. Sophie Stevens, Collections and Learning Curator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums shares her experiences of the day:

In my new role as a Collections and Learning Curator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums I am building on my experience as a specialist curator to learn more about museum learning. The SHARE course ‘Museums as Learning Spaces’ with Judith Carruthers sounded like a good place to start.

Museum of Power

Exploring the Museum of Power

The course was held at the Museum of Power near Maldon so it was a great opportunity to visit this fantastic museum. The staff were really welcoming and open about their experiences of delivering learning at the museum. The session began with an introduction from Judith and a ‘classifying objects’ activity. This was a great start and helped the process of thinking about objects in more creative ways. This continued with a ‘questioning mystery objects’ activity in which we looked at the type of questions we would ask to discover more about an unidentified object.

Having been a specialist Curator; looking at an unknown was a great way of recreating how many visitors might feel in our museums. How can we help our visitors discover more about our collections? How can we better support parents and other carers in exciting our young visitors about these objects?

This linked well with finding out our personal learning style. The VAK Learning Styles Self-Assessment Questionnaire categorised us as Kinaesthetic, Visual or Auditory learners. Most people are a mix of these styles but it is interesting to note that not all people learn like we do. Catering for these different learning styles is important to make our museums effective learning spaces.

Judith Carruthers

Working with Judith Carruthers

We then looked at a variety of trails from museums and historic houses and soon formed ideas about what makes a good one. Being clear and concise and not trying to do too much is key. Using photographs of museum objects rather than generic images is also important. A good museum trail should enable the child to take the lead and stimulate discussion, and shouldn’t involve too much writing. Trails are a great way of adding value to a visit, highlighting objects and even directing footfall to less visited parts of a site. The need to focus on one audience when developing a trail is important so that you cater for particular needs or interests of your visitor.

Following lunch we had a demonstration of the fantastic steam engine ‘Marshall’ and explored the museum as different types of visitor including grandparents with children and a wheelchair user. Looking at the displays as these visitors might was a valuable exercise which highlighted some simple changes that would make a big difference.

We finished the day looking at family learning ideas. These included mystery objects, feely bags and tools to encourage creative exploration of museums such as torches, magnifying glasses and role play. One museum has a toy lion that is hidden somewhere in the galleries. Visitors are challenged to locate the lion and find a new place to hide him. Activities such as these help make children feel comfortable in museums which can then lead to learning. This was the main message I took away with me – making our visitors feel welcome and comfortable in our museums is so important. Without this our museums cannot be effective learning spaces.

Digital Learning Day at the Museum of London

Digital Learning Day

SHARE and the Museum of London’s Digital Learning Day

On 14th January, SHARE Museums East ran a Digital Learning Day with Paul Clifford and the Museum of London. Yvonne Lawrence, Learning Services Manager at Chelmsford Museums, shares her experiences (and images) of the day:

“… A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention …”.

One of the scarcest resources of our age is attention; we are bombarded with instant information and images, hyperlinks and choices.  Working with artefacts, we encourage people to slow things down, focus on the object, give it full attention and use all five senses.  How does this low-tech approach fit with increasing uses of digital technology today?  And how can we vary the use of digital technology between formal learning and informal learning for families?

We sat around a packed conference table to discuss the use of digital technology in museum learning.  It sounds like a paradox – after all, isn’t the unique selling point of what we do that we use real objects to engage and inspire?  How can we make digital technology do more than we can with objects and paper?  Is blended learning the answer – mixing real experiences with digital technology? Some people actively seek out non-digital experiences (not everyone wants to live life through a lens).

Digital technology is not a magic fix.  Paul advised us to think about overall learning objectives rather than starting from the perspective of ‘what can I add digitally to this?’  You need to consider costs and security; logistics – storage and charging of equipment; copyright issues with apps, software, and the finished product – who owns what?; creating, sharing and deleting finished projects; and last but not least, who has the time to manage all this?

MofL iPad in a sturdy case

A Museum of London iPad in a sturdy case

The Museum of London uses 10 iPads for school visits with free or almost free Apps that are very simple to use.  These include ‘Photomontage: Photo Layers’ to allow people to ‘greenscreen’ themselves into an old photo; ‘PuppetPals’ to create animations and soundtracks illustrating historical events such as the Great Fire of London; and ‘Popplet’ mind mapping software, good for exploring uses of an artefact and sorting ideas.  Children use these Apps to create digital output they can send back to the classroom to use in follow up work, adding motivation and value to the learning experience.

A MaKey MaKey

Using a MaKey MaKey

The practical afternoon session explored technology such as the £50 MaKey Makey, described as ‘an invention kit for the 21st century’.  Deceptively simple to look at, and not much bigger than a credit card, this is a very simple circuit system that can be hooked up to a PC to create some stunning effects – similar to a programmable Raspberry Pi.  If you have ever wanted to make a printed image interactive with different outcomes when someone presses different areas, this is for you!

Yesterday the teacher in our ‘Stone Age to Iron Age’ session asked if he could use his iPhone to record the gallery tour.  I agreed and have been inspired to record our own version to use with schools: my first attempt at blended learning to help teachers get the most from their self-led gallery visit – hopefully without stopping them from booking another school session!

Want to know more about Raspberry Pi, Makey Makey and other digital learning tools? A variety of these are now available for Essex museums to borrow. Read more here.