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Cultural icon seeks rebirth of interest

The new-look British museum has its sights set on adult learners from a wider social group, reports Simon Midgley

POISED at the dawn of a new era, the British Museum wants to attract a more diverse social mix of adult learners to its education programmes.

In December, the museum's purpose-built education suite, the Clore Education Centre, will be opened as part of Sir Norman Foster's pound;100 million-plus restoration of the Great Court.

A ground-breaking partnership with London's Birkbeck College has also led to a new jointly-funded lectureship in lifelong learning and museum studies.

In future, the museum's educational programme - lectures, courses, tours and special events - will cover a much wider range of the museum's collections to take full advantage of the new extended opening hours.

The ambitious programme ties in with the return of the department of ethnography's collections from the Museum of Mankind and the fact that many key collections - from Greece, Rome and Asia - have been redisplayed to offer new ways of looking at the artefacts.

John Reeve, the museum's head of education, said that the initiative was a re-focusing and broadening of the museum's already substantial commitment to adult education.

Museums, he added, had always promoted adult education but, with the advent of the national curriculum, the number of school groups had trebled overnight, temporarily diverting the focus to younger learners.

The time had come, he added, to reach out to people who had never been to the museum, or those who, having been once, had no intention of returning.

"People think they have 'done' the BM in the same way that people think they have done the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey. We seem to be a kind of tourist attraction that people tick off their list, whereas the Tate Modern is clearly not (thought of in that way).

"I think adult learners will realise that the BM has changed out of all recognition - particularly once these programmes kick in, and with all of the publicity around the opening of the Great Court in December and the new education centre. This is very much a re-birth for us.

"People who came here 30 years ago are not used to a museum that is constantly renewing itself. The story of the past 25 years has been an extraordinary one in which there is virtually no gallery that has been unchanged. Also many people don' realise that we collect the world we live in.

"They think we deal with the dead and safely-buried past. We are constantly rewriting our accounts of the past, archaeologists are digging, ethnographers are doing field work and there is an enormous amount of research going on.

"We are determined to get across the idea that the museum changes all the time and even if you have seen that object before, the experience of having seen a TV programme, gone on a course or having used the reading room, is actually changing your perceptions and the way you look at that object."

Margaret O'Brien, the mu-seum's new head of lifelong learning, said one of her tasks was to attract new sorts of learners.

"Some people feel a bit overawed by the museum and think that perhaps it's not for them," she said. "We are trying to tell lecturers in further and adult education that the BM is about more than ancient antiquities. It is also about learning about living cultures, visual arts and crafts and the performing arts.

"My brief is to make the programme more socially inclusive so that people do not feel intimidated."

She added that this involved providing entry level activities, such as artefact-handling workshops for adults and educational activities in performing and visual arts. For example, the museum is working with the British Film Institute on ways to link film to the collections.

There was no reason, she added, why basic skills work in numeracy and literacy could not be done by handling museum objects.

Other new practical activities include an Egyptian dance workshop and a creative writing course based in the museum.

The famous reading room will become an open-access reference library where visitors can examine 5,000 museum objects digitally using 50 computers and consult a 20,000-volume collection of books.

Professor Tom Schuller, dean of the faculty of continuing education and professor of lifelong learning at Birkbeck College, said that the joint lectureship in lifelong learning and museum studies would help students to progress from attending educational events at the museum to continuing their studies in longer courses at Birkbeck.

Mr Reeve described the partnership as "a marriage made in heaven". Birkbeck's academic expertise could be married to the practicalities of looking at classical art, Indian archaeology or Andy Warhol prints.

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