Exhibition inhibitions

Victoria Neumark reports on a critical evaluation of museum education.

Is education the golden key for museums or the poor relation, languishing in cramped lunchrooms and scanning poorly produced worksheets? A new report on museum education, A Common Wealth: museums and and learning in the UK by David Anderson makes some key recommendations about museum education in this country. About half of all museums make no provision for education. Teachers, who may justifiably see museums as educational material incarnate, might wonder why.

Education, despite being the prime motive in the great foundations of museums following the Great Exhibition of 1851, is often of low status in the museum world. Until recently, scholarship was the prime museum virtue. Now marketing and heritage compete with scholarship in shaping museums' policy on displays, access and pricing. Thus the informed adult and the tourist family are the two prime audiences. Schoolchildren have historically seemed less attractive.

Museums being largely auton-omous bodies under the aegis of the Museums and Galleries Commission, there is no onus on them to co-ordinate their education - or any other - activity. Two very similar collections in different cities may have vastly different educational programmes. On the national level, the picture is equally "startling", the report says.

The British Museum, for in-stance, despite having a fine education service, does not yet have an education centre, though it has put in a bid for one as part of its Millenium development. The V A, where David Anderson is head of education, has, on the other hand, expanded its education activities vastly over the past few years.

Fewer than 400 of 1,700 registered museums have an education specialist on their staff. Only 23 per cent have an educational policy, which may put some in breach of their charitable status. Only 15 per cent have a policy for disabled people and only 7 per cent a multicultural policy. Is it surprising that at present more than half of the population rarely or never uses museums?

The report suggests that museums should take education seriously, by employing specialist staff to focus and direct educational initiatives at specific groups from school visits to informal and formal adult courses. It suggests a bigger role for Area Museums Councils in providing advice and training for museums using education in their area. Museum education should be incorporated into training for all museum professionals and should be represented on the Museums and Galleries Commission, it says.

More controversially, the report envisages a role for the Office for Standards in Education, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Teacher Training Agency in developing the use of museums as a learning resource by schools. In fact, David Anderson asks for a standing committee on museum education or museums through the cultural sector. He suggests using Lottery funding to establish a national infrastructure for museum education, which should include links with local communities and FE colleges and higher education centres as well as schools.

It's a far cry from just bundling up the kids and taking them to look at the flint arrowheads in the town hall. But it is a cry that will be welcomed by the many teachers and schools (most of them primary) who get a lot out of their museum visits but would welcome a truly integrated professional service to enable them to help their students understand (to cite a maxim from the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard quoted in the report) that "life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards". Where better to test that out than in the hall of dinosaurs?

A Common Wealth is available from the Department of National Heritage Public Enquiry Point, tel: 0171 211 6200

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