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Guiding lights of history

Frances Farrer visits the Ashmolean collection in Oxford and experiences the value of enthusiastic museum staff

Will the museum be like an Aladdin's Cave of possibilities, or a Pandora's Box of potential disaster? The children must enjoy the outing and be stimulated by it, they must not get lost or drowned or fall off a statue or break anything - museum or one of their own limbs. They must take a good account of it home, and in all probability you must get a term's work out of it.

Enter the white knights: there is enormous support to be had from museum education departments. If asked nicely and with a term's notice there is almost nothing they will not do for you. They will design your visit, provide the right number of guides, even suggest follow-up work, all for a relatively small (subsidised) fee.

Most museum guides are erudite volunteers who love their subjects, many have families of their own and know not only how to answer children's questions but also how to steer groups of children around. For teachers they can provide an invaluable resource combining the two essential expertise arenas of school and home.

The education department at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, the oldest public museum in the country, offers these twin capabilities within a friendly and accessible academic institution. The range of contents - from early Egyptian to the 20th century - is contained in a relatively small space, elegantly housed in the building designed by C R Cockerell in 1845. Education officer Katherine Booth Stevens says that above all the education department likes teachers to say what they want. The museum has a repertoire of topics that can be tailored to each class's work but loves researching new ones for individual projects.

Moira Hook, one of the guides, speaks of the variety of the Ashmolean's treasures and some unexpected connections: "For a 'personal safety' theme we showed locked mummy cases and personal seals from 4,000bc. For 'elements' we show mostly paintings. For themes concerned with the body we can concentrate on sculpture."

For Louise Jarrett of the Carrdus School, Banbury, the topic was Egypt. "I knew what I wanted but I didn't know what the museum could offer," she says. All was explained at her pre-visit conversation, when the needs of her group of 22 six and seven-year-olds were discussed. It was agreed to split them into groups between teacher, museum guide, and an adult helper.

On arrival the children were instantly drawn to the mummies: "they're fascinated by death rituals," then to the combs, artefacts, sandals, jewellery - "in fact the whole wealth of things there. The sum total was wider than what I could have given through books and information sources and the trip led them to be proper fact-finders". CD-Rom programs on Egypt had been "too advanced or too boring". The volunteer guides came in for praise, too. "They honed in on the children's interests," says Louise Jarrett. "They'd give detailed and sometimes quite idiosyncratic answers. The guides explored their interests, answering individual questions. The children came out really zapped, still very excited and wanting to stay longer."

Her pupils stayed an hour, the optimum time for this age group, especially when added to two half-hour coach journeys. "You need a directed amount of time with specific aims and objectives, very concentrated," she says. The verdict? "An experience like that creates a spiral of knowledge," she says. "You really can't beat primary sources.

"At the museum the children kept asking 'how's that made?' When we got back, one child spent a term making boxes that fitted into boxes. They made pop-up figures and pyramids in CDT. They loved the pottery animals in the museum, so we made some at school. There's no doubt the quality of the work was much enhanced."

For Amanda Gunn of Speedwell School, in Littlemore near Oxford, topics for her reception class were outdoors and the natural environment. The task was to relate them to paintings and three-dimensional art, in accordance with the national curriculum. Again, the story is of complementary effort. Miss Gunn says: "I hadn't expected such an inspiring outcome," and praised the practical help she received from the museum.

"The education department offered several dates, saying that one of them would have three guides. I had 29 children in two age groups, with one learning support assistant. We decided on 45 minutes. I'd never done a trip without another teacher, and few of the children had been to a museum before . . . In the event, it was easy."

At the museum "the children were amazed at the size of the pictures. I bring pictures into school, though of course never of the actual size. We looked at Persian tiles, a Japanese picnic box, screens, plates . . . and they became absolutely fascinated by the Buddha in the glass case. They were also very impressed by the staircase - they got a great deal out of the whole thing. As we were leaving one of the curators said: 'What a pleasure it's been having you.' When we got back to school some children made a model Chinese screen, some painted pictures to copy the Constables. One made a Japanese picnic set, several made an anti-stinging-nettle suit. The work that came out of it was well worth it, a much higher standard than they could have done otherwise. "

Littlemore is near enough to Oxford for the Speedwell School group to use public transport, but a group of about 30 children creates difficulties, so a nice inspector fetched a bus for them to go back on. The driver came and talked to them, and made them a bus ticket 30 tickets long, which is now pinned up around the classroom wall. Amanda Gunn insists this is not the most memorable element of the visit.

The Ashmolean is appealing not least because of its relatively small scale: it is less daunting than, say, the British Museum, containing rarities easily as engaging and it is as user-friendly as many much smaller institutions. The opportunities from museum visits in general are great indeed and the message is simply restated: never underestimate the magnificent helpfulness of museum education departments.

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH. Tel: 01865 278015

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