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Making Museums: learning to deliver a museums education programme

17 October 12 -- jsuess
Making Museums students in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, © University of Oxford
Making Museums is an annual project delivered by the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUM) education departments. Up to 540 Year 6 children (aged 10-11) from East Oxford and Headington state primary schools take part in the project in the first half of the autumn term each year.
The project consists of three elements. Educators from both museums visit each class that’s taking part and introduce them to reading objects. Then each class visits the museums for a whole day, learning how objects are discovered (by digging a sand-pit burial), how they are documented and researching what they are. Finally, the educators visit the schools again to be shown the museums that pupils themselves have created.
I joined the Pitt Rivers Museum in July 2012 to cover maternity leave for the primary education officer and had the whole summer to prepare myself for Making Museums. I knew it would be hard work, but I hoped it would also be a lot of fun. I had worked on similar set-ups with schools in Camden, involving visiting the schools, then taking them out on trips and then doing follow-up work in the classroom.
The initial outreach sessions were only an hour long and I was partnered by Chris Jarvis from OUM, so there was very little that could go wrong. We quickly found a great balance in the delivery of different elements of the session. We took out a huge range of objects, from a bark-cloth hat, to a Norwegian snowshoe, from insects trapped in amber to a polar bear foot. Guess which was the kids’ favourite object? I did feel that the OUM had an unfair advantage with that polar bear’s foot.
On the first day of the schools visits to the museums, I was incredibly nervous. The day was so tightly timetabled, I had to lead sections on my own and Chris would rely on me to be in certain places at certain times that I had never seen the day before. I had worried about it for days, but then the school arrived, and the teaching module in my brain took over.
So when the kids came in to the museums, and we gathered them under the Iguanodon, in full view of the T-Rex, all I was worried about was that we’d lose them to natural history forever. I was quick to point out the amazing totem pole made by the Haida people of Northwest Canada as we went into the PRM, just to even the balance a little.
The day started with a game called What is it?, which is a session we also offer to primary schools. Seven mystery objects were placed round the room and the pupils had to choose what they thought it was from three options.
We then thought about how objects come into the museum. As the pupils are going to do a dig, we focused on archaeology and mimed a couple of incompetent archaeologists who move an artefact inadvertently, which completely changes the interpretation of our pretend dig. The pupils got the idea straightaway that they needed to be careful to not move things when digging.
That was when the class got split into two groups. I was a little wounded when several boys cried “Yes!” at getting to be in Chris’ group, but I swallowed my pride and soldiered on. In the dig room, I donned a hi-vis vest and told my group that I was their supervisor, and they were the best archaeological team in the country. They only had ten minutes to uncover the body before the builders were back on site. This first school were very careful not to move objects, and pretty quick at removing the sand.
I got them to record the dig with skeleton recording sheets (very similar to ones I have used as a professional archaeologist), and record the positions of objects in the grave. Pairs of pupils then chose two objects, one natural and one man-made, to document and research. Back under the T-Rex in the OUM, the pupils measured, described, sketched and checked their object for damage.
By this time, you’d think it was already 2.00 pm, but actually it was midday. The pupils left their objects behind as it was time for a behind-the-scenes visit to PRM collections and conservation. I had already scripted my stern talk to them about not touching anything behind the scenes, and they were very good.
The class then managed to have about 20 minutes for lunch, while Chris and I had ten. Eventually, he rounded them up and gave out their objects again, now boxed up in plastozote, for researching around the museum. The maps of both museums always need explaining as map-reading is quite a difficult concept for most pupils, and many adults too!
Kim helping the students to navigate the Pitt Rivers to identify their objects
The pupils quite liked this directed roam around the museums, and they managed to read the maps properly, so found out a lot of information about their chosen objects. Once they had information, we built up the story of the person buried in the sand-pit. On this first day, all I managed to elicit was that it was a woman from Africa who wanted a baby and kept ostriches, but by the fifth one, we had built up a picture of a female tribal leader who took part in musical entertainments, had animals sacrificed to her and believed in the magical properties of Belemnite fossils.
After the first one, I had lots of thoughts about changing the day, like leaving out What is it?to give us more time later on; like changing the story of the dig so as not to reflect an outdated view of archaeological investigation (rescue archaeology is so 70s); or of changing lunchtime so they went earlier.
But after doing a few more I’ve realised that What is it? is essential for a gentle introduction to the day, and to reacquaint the pupils and teachers with us, and with reading objects. There is also no other archaeological narrative that would work with this slot, as it’s about finding a body unexpectedly. That does still happen from time to time. Also, although the kids are tired after such a long morning, the behind-the-scenes tour would be much harder to control if they had just come back from lunch. Making Museums has been going for ten years without my input (winning the Clore Award for Museum Learning in 2011), and it works pretty well.
I’m looking forward to what the children come up with for their own museums. From what I’ve seen so far, it really encourages team-working, questioning and critical thinking skills, effective talking skills and building a sense of commitment to a task that might take longer than 20 minutes, the fabled attention span of a child. It is with the pupils often branded as “low achievers” that I’ve seen most engagement and excitement, as the day focuses on novel concepts and ways of working. I’ll leave you with some feedback from that first day: “I would say you should go to that museum it is really fun.” I wonder which museum she was talking about?
Contribution from Kim Biddulph
Education Officer, Primary Schools, Pitt Rivers Museum

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