A Participant’s View on GEM Museum Learning Foundation Course 2019 – Blog #2
By Nigel Cook
Unfortunately, due to a pretty unpleasant chest infection, I missed Days 3 and 4 of the GEM Museum Learning Foundation Course 2019. These days were held at the Royal Museums Greenwich and the Museum of London, and I am reliably informed by my course mates that they were just as full of insight and inspiration as Days 1 and 2.
However, after a lovely break over the Christmas and New Year period, I came back fighting fit (ok…with a cold!) for the final face-to-face days of the course. We started off day 5 at the London Canal Museum which is a hidden gem I had not yet discovered, despite being only a stone’s throw from King’s Cross. After a bit of catching up between course mates, we began discussing teamwork. Each of us had filled in a questionnaire before attending to determine our ‘team role’ based on percentage scores in different categories. The results of this were very interesting, showing that of our group, none of us had our highest percentage in the ‘Driver’ or ‘Completer’ roles. We did however have a total of 6 ‘Team Players’. As someone phrased it, if we formed a project team: “We’d have a great time but get nothing done!”. At first glance this would seem to be the case, however Pete Brown (our course tutor) then revealed the second-highest percentage scores for all of us, and this showed a much more balanced team. It is important when forming an effective team to consider the different layers of skills each member can bring – not just their most obvious strength.
From teamwork, we moved on to discussing meetings – cue a collective groan from the room at the mention of the word ‘meetings’. Pete asked us to list what makes a meeting work and what makes it not work, and we all had plenty of suggestions for the latter. We all agreed that bad timing and poor organisation were the root causes of bad meetings, plus of course the classic ‘it could have just been an email’. Elements of a good meeting included collaboration, inclusivity, a clear agenda and an effective chair. With regards to having your voice heard in a meeting, Pete told us “be assertive!” – a phrase which would become the hallmark of these final two days.
Next, we were given examples of museum interpretation that was perhaps not written or displayed in the most accessible way and were asked to suggest how it might be improved. This was an opportunity to consider the accessibility of the language used, text layout and design choices. Pete emphasised the importance of working collaboratively with designers throughout the development of interpretation, and the importance of testing designs with groups of visitors to identify any potential issues.
When I started the GEM course, I expected to be building bridges…but not literally! Enter Cathy, Learning Officer at the London Canal Museum, who challenged us to build a bridge that was tall/wide enough for a toy boat to ‘sail’ under, and strong enough to support a series of weights. Not only was the activity a lot of fun (Jemma and I made a very aesthetically pleasing woven bridge) but it also highlighted Cathy’s hard work to build a cross-curricular learning programme covering STEM as well as history. She discussed with us the limitations for small museums with low staff resource and the difficulties of trying to attract school visits spread more evenly across the curriculum – often schools view museums as facilitators of history trips only.
As Day 5 drew to a close we addressed evaluation. With reflective practice being such an important part of any work conducted, what is the best way to evaluate a project? Pete showed an example of evaluation carried out by asking young visitors to draw an annotated picture as their feedback. Making the evaluation part of the session and making it fun is key to a good response rate. In the same way that museums can make use of ‘stealth learning’ – making learning fun so that visitors don’t realise they’re being taught – they can also make use of ‘stealth evaluation’.
We all arrived bright and early for Day 6 at our host venue the National Army Museum. The day began by asking ‘what is a project?’. Pete defined a project as any activity requiring more than one step – “making a cup of tea is a project”. Thinking about this made me realise that I project manage on a daily basis, even if on a very small scale, and that I have those skills even if I feel that I don’t. We talked about some of the main challenges in any project being money, time and people, and that regular reviews were the best way to avoid catastrophe – in Pete’s words: “don’t wait for crises to happen.” We continued this theme by talking through our proposals for the course project with each other and providing suggestions for improvements or other perspectives to consider. Personally, I found this incredibly useful. It can be so easy to become blinkered when you’re planning a project, especially if it is your idea and something you are passionate about, so getting insight from a peer is extremely valuable and I will definitely be taking it into account.
Speaking of valuable tools for project planning, Pete also explained to us the four D’s of effective time management: Do it, Defer it, Delegate it, Dump it. We each wrote out our current to-do lists, both professional and personal, and allocated a different time management tool to each. ‘Do it’ is for small tasks which can be achieved in very little time – these should be done right away. Use ‘Defer it’ for tasks which can be pushed back, however be sure to allocate a specific time or date to ensure that you complete it later. ‘Delegate it’ applies to any tasks which are not specific to you and can be passed to someone else, and finally ‘Dump it’ is for tasks which do not really need to be done. Using the four D’s can make a To Do list much more manageable and can free up important brain processing space for focusing on more immediate needs.
The penultimate section of our day involved Lily, Learning Producer at the National Army Museum, talking us through their learning offer. It was very interesting for me to hear about their secondary offer in particular, as this is something the museum I work for are looking to expand into. Lily ran through the physics workshop she developed centred around parachutes which had proven to be incredibly popular. We got to try out the parachute design activity and then see how the shapes of the canopy and the materials we chose affected their descent as we launched them from the top floor of the museum to a target below. Jemma and I teamed up again and our parachute performed quite well; it was also very popular with her cat when she took it home! Lily then highlighted the importance of asking the children afterwards “what would you change?” to really get them thinking about the physics they had learned.
Finally, we were treated to some live historical interpretation by the wonderfully talented and engaging Andrew Ashmore. He burst into the room in full costume (and already in character) as a canal boat worker from the Birmingham area. Having known a lot of people from that area in my life, his accent and mannerisms were spot on! After a very enjoyable and interactive session, he broke character to talk to us about the possibilities and value of live interpretation. It can bring a subject to life and can engage people in new and interesting ways. He told a story of when he played a historic figure associated with the slave trade and was met with fierce opposition from multiple children, who clearly enjoyed the opportunity to tell this person from the past exactly what they thought of his views.
As a fitting end to Day 6, we all received from Pete our Personal Mapping sheets from Day 1 and were asked to add any new thoughts on ‘Museum Learning’ – to my surprise I had a great deal to add which I had not thought of at the beginning of the course. It was a fantastic visual representation of just how much the course taught me. I can say with all honesty that the course as a whole has been such a valuable experience for me, and I am genuinely excited to plan my project and produce my report.
Thank you for reading, and if you are considering the Museum Learning Foundation Course, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
*If you’d like to get more information/book on for the Foundation Course on Museum Learning in Manchester, click here.