A Participant’s View on GEM Museum Learning Foundation Course 2019 – Blog #1
After a relatively smooth journey into London from the wilds of Buckinghamshire, I arrived at The Postal Museum for Day 1 of the Foundation Course. As this year’s cohort started to trickle into the Museum, we began to chat and get to know each other. It was fantastic to see such a range of people from so many different aspects of culture and heritage meeting in one place to learn together. If that doesn’t reflect the goal of museum learning I don’t know what does!
Course leader Pete Brown quickly broke the ice by getting us to draw portraits on each other’s name badges…by drawing on top of our heads without looking. Kathy did surprisingly well with her portrait of me, my portrait of her on the other hand I’d describe as Picasso-inspired at best! The idea of this activity was to push past the artistic inhibition that a lot of us develop as we get older. Adults should still feel comfortable having fun and being creative because play is an important aspect of learning at any age. We also played Blind Date Bingo which helped us to get to know more about one another and encouraged us to mingle with the rest of the group rather than just those sat next to us.
Before we started discussing theory and practice, we each got the opportunity to try Personal Meaning Mapping. In the centre of a sheet of paper we were given the phrase ‘Museum Learning’ and asked to write down whatever we could think of in relation to that term. Later in the course we will look at these Personal Meaning Maps again, and add to them in a different coloured pen – hopefully this will show us how much we are learning as the course continues. This is also a very useful method for assessing knowledge gained by visitors from exhibitions.
Once we had added to our Maps, we launched into the main content of the course by discussing reflective practice. What does it mean? Why is it important? How do we carry it out? It’s about ongoing, shared reflection on the work you do and ensuring that you avoid making the same mistake more than once by implementing what you’ve learned – what worked and what didn’t? What is the best route forward? I really resonated with this discussion as I feel that reflective practice is something that my team does very well, however I think on a personal level I could take time to reflect more on my development. If reflective practice is not regularly carried out in your workplace, or if it doesn’t involve inter-departmental work, then Pete told us we “need to rock the boat”. Judging by the enthusiasm and innovative outlook of my course mates, I don’t think that will be difficult!
With a hard-earned lunch break behind us, Sally Sculthorpe, Schools Learning Manager at The Postal Museum took time out of her busy day to discuss the development and implementation of the Museum’s learning programme with us. I think we were all impressed by what Sally and the Museum have achieved over the course of their re-development, especially with their Jolly Postman programme carried out in schools and its 100% re-booking rate! Sally explained that the most important aspect of developing their programme was consultation, especially with teachers. They spoke to many groups, and provided incentives to ensure people were more likely to give up their spare time. Though it may seem like common sense to talk to your intended audience before going ahead with a project, it can often be overlooked in the midst of design briefs, curriculum research and funding applications – and hearing first-hand about The Postal Museum’s success with museum learning, it became clear just how important consultation is.
We rounded off Day 1 with real excitement as we’d all been anticipating a ride on the museum’s Mail Rail experience. As we squeezed into the small (but surprisingly comfortable!) train, we were treated to a ride along the historic underground network used to deliver post around London right up until 2003. Accompanied by audio and visual interpretation, it was great to physically experience a piece of history rather than simply read about it. Sally had discussed with us issues around the accessibility of the ride, which the Museum had addressed by creating an accessible Mail Rail experience simulating the ride – with this being placed in the same area the actual train departs from. Some of us took the opportunity to have a look at some of the Museum’s interactives before heading home for the night, and saw how they had really brought the history of the postal service to life.
Day 2 began with a trip on the Overground to Hackney where our second host venue, Sutton House, was based. Again this was a site which was new to me and I loved the fact that this beautiful 16th Century Tudor house was neatly nestled in the middle of a modern Hackney street. As one of the first to arrive I had a chance to nosey around the building before we got started, but it wasn’t long before caffeine called to me and we gathered ready to begin discussing the day’s first topic: Kolb’s Learning Cycle. This cycle incorporates reflection as part of the learning experience, and proposes different learning styles people may exhibit. It’s important to consider when working in a team that not everyone learns in the same way.
We took this idea further and Pete provided us with a questionnaire from Inspiring Learning for All, an Arts Council England initiative which suggested 8 different learning styles that people fit to different degrees – there may be one clear style that represents a person’s learning, or a mix of several. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group’s top learning styles were Interpersonal and Linguistic, both of which are apparently common in Arts and Culture staff. Although such tests are to be taken with a pinch of salt, they are a good way to demonstrate that when developing learning materials, the varied learning styles of your intended audience are important to consider.
Next we had an introduction to Cooperative Learning structures – potential alternatives to the ‘hands up’ method of question-and-answer. The idea is to avoid a situation in which only the most confident participants answer by allowing a more even spread of contributions. This could involve working in pairs toward an answer, feeding back after group discussion or ‘coaching’ each other towards the correct answer. We had the opportunity to act out one of these scenarios before Danielle Handley, Community Learning and Volunteering Officer at Sutton House, came to talk to us about their learning programme. Being in a unique position within the National Trust, both in terms of geography and programming, Sutton House has the opportunity to cover some of the topics that schools can find difficult to teach. To quote Danielle, museums should be providing ‘what teachers don’t have the time’ to provide – yes a learning programme should be based on the curriculum, but it should also introduce themes or information that teachers might not be able to.
After lunch, we had a discussion with Danielle about the possibilities of expanding Sutton House’s learning provision, allowing us all the opportunity to reflect on successes and challenges with secondary school programmes, staff resource and workshop themes at our own workplaces. Our final topic for the day was access, and began with the group listing as many barriers to access that we could think of including physical, sensory, emotional, cultural, financial and more. As we talked more about these barriers we realised some that we had overlooked, and how many of them overlapped or interacted in ways we hadn’t realised before. We then used Sutton House as an example and carried out a review of its accessibility. Taking into account the difficulties of modifying a listed building, it was valuable to discuss what we had observed at Sutton House and suggest potential solutions, drawing on what we had all seen in other culture and heritage buildings.
And so Day 2 came to an end and we were all left with much to mull over on our journeys home. I know that I already have been sharing some of the ideas raised with my team, and am eagerly awaiting the next two days of course time in December! We have been tasked with preparing a presentation on our favourite subject for Day 4, and I’m especially excited to hear what everyone will be talking about.
Until next time, thanks for reading.