Friday, 31 October 2014

It takes just one...... - Corie Edwards

It takes just one person looking or handling just one object for memories to rush back to them and if you are lucky enough to be in a group when handling that object, you can share those memories. This concept is not something new, there are many reminiscence groups associated with museums across the country that hold social gatherings with this practice in mind. Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to hear a memory from an elderly English soldier at a stroke club who was not there to look and handle objects from previous wars he took part in, but masks from around the world. The gathering was not a reminiscence session and the objects came from parts of the world that use masks in very different ways than we associate in the west. This man’s story left me wondering, do we need to handle objects from our own personal, social or cultural history to spark reminiscence?

To begin to tackle this question I will elaborate further on the session, the man’s story, and my views on the topic.

It was myself and one of the outreach officers who went out on Tuesday to a stroke club with masks from the Pitt Rivers handling collection. The day was intended to be a social gathering of people who have had a stroke and we were there to show them something different and maybe get them talking about something new.

The session was going well. There were people there with various degrees of mobility and speech because of their strokes; some people knew a lot about the Pitt Rivers collection and some learned new things with every mask; some actively participated and other just listened and watched. One of the group members was content listening and looking for almost all of the session. That quickly changed with our last mask depicting a woman with filed teeth and scarification on her cheeks and forehead from Africa. This object inspired the man to speak and eventually the whole room was quiet to hear his story.

That mask had him share a memory of his from the 1950s when he was in Guinea searching for Japanese soldiers who had not yet given up on the war. During that time he came across shrunken heads outside a tribe’s settlement and later found out that those were the heads from another tribe they fought against. The heads were the captured losers of the fight and were displayed almost like trophies and also as a warning to others. He described what a shock it was because not many westerners knew about this practice during the 50s.

I cannot say for certain what exactly caused that man to remember his time in Guinea and share his story and as he had limited hearing and speech difficulties it was not appropriate to ask him to elaborate further. However, that memory arose when I was speaking to the group about the body modifications and they all made faces or sounds of shock. The modifications depicted on the mask were the identifying features of an ideal woman in the culture it originated. These kinds of modifications are not widely practiced in western cultural and therefore can be shocking when learnt about for the first time. Just as it was shocking for the man to see shrunken heads for the first time, even though the tribe that displayed these heads outside their settlement were identifying with them as a symbol of their strong warriors and victories.

To us these seem like extreme measures to present the ideas and ideals of a culture. However, it is not too far off from ways we express ourselves in modern western culture. Ideal women today are on the covers of magazines and we alter those images to have unobtainable thin waists and over developed chests. The faces so airbrushed that they show no true features. And as for heads being displayed on a settlements boundary lines, it wasn’t too far back in British history when we beheaded losers of battles and placed their heads on the spikes of the gate into the heart of the city of London.

What I am trying to get at from these examples is that all objects hold a power of identity and that is why we use them to study cultures. It is the underlying theme of identity that we can connect to no matter where or when the object is from. How we make that connection and express it can come in all forms. As for the man in the stroke club he did not need to hold western WWII era objects to recall that memory, although it cannot be said for certain that objects such as that could have brought about the same memory. He just needed to connect to the identity of the mask and it was from that common idea that he connected it to a similar object and event in his own history. 

One example is not concrete proof, but hopefully the question can be practised more and we can build upon the idea of shared memories not only from our own personal and social history, but from cultures and civilizations around the world and throughout time.  We as museums have the ability to share this idea through handling and studying objects. By exposing these common threads we can create connections to foreign places and therefore, in my belief, make the world a little less separated.  

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

'Making Museums' : A Year 6 project with Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum - Aisling Serrant

One part of my first placement at Oxford University Museum of Natural History which I have been both excited about and a little daunted by, is a project working with year 6 school groups called Making Museums. This is a huge project which has been running at the museum in partnership with the Pitt Rivers Museum for 10 years, working with 10 primary schools and approximately 500 students each year.

Its many components are hard to sum up in a few sentences. Each school has three main sessions - firstly an hour long outreach session at the school to allow the children to meet the education staff and develop some initial skills in handling objects.  Next each class has a full day session at the museum jam-packed with a variety of different activities including a pretend archaeological dig, a visit behind the scenes to meet conservation and collections experts and a chance to explore the museum researching their chosen object from the dig. The day concludes with the children feeding back what they have found in order to build up their picture of who the mystery person in their dig was. In the final session the project staff visit a museum made by the children in their schools with their own objects, putting into practice some of the skills and knowledge they have learnt throughout the project.

The first thing I noticed when me and Pitt Rivers trainee Hannah were given the project notes in the weeks running up to it was the sheer volume of content. To top it off we were also trialling putting a few of the schools through Arts Award Explore which meant booklets had to be filled out with certain things in a certain way to give the children the best chance of passing, another thing to think about! There was so much stuff to teach I wondered how we were expected to remember it all. However the team assured me we would find it easier to learn on the job, observing how the Education Officers did things and little by little learning to teach it ourselves. 

Aisling preparing for a school session

The first bit of teaching we did was in the initial outreach sessions. I remember feeling pretty nervous and I think it probably showed - but that was the point of us doing Making Museums, to practice delivering sessions (hopefully) to the point where we wouldn’t get nervous anymore. The real hard work started in phase two when the schools started coming in for their day sessions. Me and Hannah shadowed the first two days but after that we started teaching parts ourselves. When a class comes in for a session they do some parts at the beginning as a whole class and then split into two halves to excavate a dig each. We had two days of working alongside Education Officers but from our third day onwards me and Hannah worked together on a dig of our own. 

What the team had assured me about learning on the job proved to be right and, as each day we taught a different section or each day we taught a little bit more, we learnt the content naturally without needing to spend hours learning lesson plans. What had seemed an incredibly overwhelming project that I was unsure I was ready for proved to me what I am actually capable of. 

On one of our last days me and Hannah had the opportunity to lead the day by ourselves and run a dig each, just with Education Officer Chris floating around to help if needed. I think by this point after so much practice and repetition (we ran a total of 17 sessions in the museum!) our confidence had grown immensely and we were sure we could do it. And we were fine! We had become so accustomed to teaching Making Museums that it just didn’t feel like a big deal anymore.

Delivering part of a session at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

I’ve loved being a part of Making Museums and it has definitely been one of the highlights of my traineeship so far. I feel really proud that we got to the stage where we could lead a year 6 class through a full day of so many different activities almost independently. On the last day Head of Education at the Pitt Rivers Museum Andy asked which parts we wanted to teach and I remember saying we could do whatever, we were capable of teaching the whole day if he wanted! I didn’t mean to sound big headed by this! I just meant that the project and the staff had allowed us to reach a level where we were comfortable enough to lead it ourselves, something I’m pretty proud of only 4 months into our traineeship!

I have just got back from our first session in the project’s final phase where we visit a museum made by the children. We were very impressed! There were museum maps, opening times and signposts and it was a true multisensory experience – one of my favourites was the sweets display where you were blindfolded and had to guess what sweet you had been given by using your different senses. It was so lovely seeing all the hard work that had been put into it and incredibly rewarding to see how much the children have enjoyed it. At the end of quite an exhausting project, it really did make the whole thing feel worthwhile.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Delivering Amazing Autumn school sessions - Corie Edwards

Autumn is one of the busiest times of year for Harcourt Arboretum. A walk around the grounds will reveal shades of yellow, orange, red, purple and blue (yes, even blue!). This spectacular display of the season is great not only for general visitors, but for schools as well.  By the end of the previous school year teachers have already booked next years class to come to the Arboretum to learn about Amazing Autumn. 

Autumn colours currently showing at Arboretum

Amazing Autumn is broken up into two sections. One is going on a treasure hunt to find arboretum treasure. On this leg of the session we have demonstrations with seeds and use leaves to learn about colours, size, shapes, and numeracy. The second part is learning more about autumn than just lovely leaves. Children learn about hibernation from building houses for hedgehogs to give them a place to sleep during the winter. 

Hedgehog house

They also use leaves, cones, and feathers to create shapes and artwork on the grass. After the whole group has finished both sections they use the treasure they collected to make woodland crowns.

Woodland Crown

 Although we want to cover the same topics with each school group we hardly ever take the same route around and many times each group sees something the other hasn’t. They both still learn about shapes and sizes and so on, but from different trees. This happens because once the group splits into two, we take the first one aside and ask them what they might want to see. That could be colours, certain trees and sometimes animals. What they tell us they want to see is how we plan the route. A list of 5-8 things and we quickly plan how to get all of that into 30 minutes. The whole group then reconvenes and we switch. Different group means different answers; therefore a different route is needed.

Running the sessions this way is fantastic for me because it gives variety instead of doing the same route upwards of 8 times a week. There is still repetition therefore my confidence in knowledge of the session increases. Having to plan a route on the spot has also increased my confidence because I know that no matter what the kids say they want to see I can create a route to show it to them. That is unless they shout out something along the lines of, ‘Hippo’ because surprisingly the Arboretum is lacking in hippos on site!

Amazing Autumn has definitely helped strengthen my delivery and management skills. It has also increased my understanding of how to tailor a session to the age group. For instance, with nursery kids I would ask them to find two leaves smaller than their hand, but for key stage 2 I would ask them to find five leaves double the size of their hand. I love these sessions and the kids seem to really enjoy their time with us whilst learning more about the season.

Learning from Objects– Rachel McLaughlin

Recently we had a training day at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum. The sessions were about learning from objects. About 15 people attended from museums all over the South East. We had a wide variety of objects to learn with, from pennies and amulets to textiles and trees. 

We started with some coin handling. Coins are very interesting for many museum visitors as everyone already knows what they’re for. Museum staff  are often asked “what is it worth?” Learning to read the symbolism and exploring what a coin can tell you about a certain place and time can give a great starting point to begin learning about the people who used the coins.

The second session was all about drawing from objects. In pairs, one person had the object, and had to describe it to their partner who hadn’t seen it – and they had to draw it. We had some very interesting attempts! We then tried other methods: with our non-dominant hand,  without looking at our paper, by using one continuous line and from memory. Drawing something so many times and in such a variety of way really helped us lose our fear of drawing badly and it really made observational drawings fun!

My drawings

We had two sessions in the Pitt Rivers – one was a way to explore the museum by taking objects and an associated map locating similar items. We had to find out where the objects were from, and what they were used for. It was exciting to be able to explore the museum for ourselves and reporting back gave us the ownership of the information we had found. We also had the last session of the day there, doing a couple of quizzes about what objects can tell us about the people who owned, used or made them. 
Trees are also objects! Leaves, bark and flowers can also all be used as objects in sessions. Lynn Daley from Harcourt Arboretum got us categorising leaves to create a key, and brought in her imaginary giant redwood which she takes out into schools. We all stood inside its trunk, and discovered how big it is compared to the lawn in front of the museum of natural history.

Trainee Corie and other group member creating a leaf key

One of the community outreach officers, Nicola Bird, brought in a variety of objects made of fabric, and some fibres and materials which go with them. The activity made us really feel the fibres carefully, and we were encouraged to think about the objects more generally as we interacted with them. Were things heavier than we expected? Were they softer than we expected? Talking to each other about the objects was enjoyable as well as helping us learn something, and having fun is one of the main aims of outreach sessions.

Emma Williams from the Botanic Garden brought a variety of seeds for us to categorise, we had to think hard about how some seeds would disperse themselves. Finding the seeds which disperse by propulsion (i.e. exploding) was very exciting – we probably dispersed a few too many seeds around the inside of the museum annexe!

Objects and activities from Harcourt Arboretum and the Botanic Garden

Throughout the day, many similar techniques were used to extract information and use the objects educationally. We always had to look carefully – questioning techniques and activities always encouraged considered observation. We were encouraged to find out about objects non-judgementally, to find common themes between them and identify aspects that were either familiar or new to us. The wonder and fascination which interacting with an unfamiliar object is a big part of museum education – the excitement that is then associated with exploring museum objects can really change attitudes to learning new things.