It is one of the strangest collections in Britain, a museum filled floor-to-ceiling with stuffed birds, displayed in red-in-tooth-and-claw tableaux. Somewhere a fox is about to snaffle rare eggs; elsewhere a sharp beak pulls out the entrails of something small and fluffy.
The Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton, East Sussex, looks typically Victorian, but the word is going round local teachers that its loans service is just the job for a hot prop - specifically owls, the mail service of Hogwarts school.
The curricular spin-offs of a look at Harry Potter's postie pals are legion; apart from the literacy angle, pupils can study habitats, camouflage and the environment. Resourceful primary school teachers see Hedwig (Harry's snowy) and Errol (Ron's accident-prone bird) as a launch-pad into all sorts of national curriculum areas. "The one we usually lend out is an eagle owl," says curator Gerald Legg. "He's very good for art. It's a rare chance for pupils to see an owl still and close up. We do have a snowy - Nyctea scandiaca - but he's cased. Perhaps we should give him a more prominent position in view of the Hedwig connection."
The Booth is one of the UK's best lending resources for British mammals, birds, insects and fossils. Generations of children have been stumped by the museum's gigantic dinosaur toe, one of its most awesome items. Skins, skulls and skeletons are popular too. For less sensational lessons there are loans from the earth, wind and fire collection of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. The Booth also does education days, with specially hired teachers for key stage 1, 2 and 3 sessions. The loans - eagle owl included - come in perspex cases for the bargain price of pound;2 per item per month, although schools have to collect and return the boxes themselves.
Annie Tomlinson, who teaches key stage 2 at Brighton's Somerhill junior school, says: "The owl service was wonderful for us. We started off with Harry Potter for literacy, then went on to owls as a wildlife topic, then used them in design. We had Hedwigs all over the place."
There are at least two points of view in the museum world about the loans boxes some museums lend out to schools. On the one hand, Julia Bryan, senior education officer of Liverpool's Merseyside Maritime Museum, says:
"There's a move away from them. You need to get children into museums so they can interact with objects there. Then there are health and safety implications; items get lost; and there's a lot of admin involved." On the other hand, a Department for Education and Skills-funded project at one of the oldest lending museums in the UK, Reading Museum, claims that teachers prefer loans to visits and that children often get more out of visits if they have already met some allied objects in the classroom.
The Campaign for Learning through Museums and Galleries has its own think-tank, called Manifesto, a group of the great and good gathered largely from outside the museum world. It is giving a great deal of thought to the subject of school loans boxes .
Hannah Gould, CLMG communications manager, says: "Manifesto is considering how to set up a national learning loans scheme. We have a billion objects in our museums and only 20 per cent are on view. Such a scheme would of course need serious funding and a national register of objects.
"Loans boxes need to be more than just a box of objects at the back of the classroom. They need to be specifically linked to the national curriculum, and not just for history but for the full range of subjects, including literacy, numeracy and citizenship."
Reading Museum, which has been lending to schools since 1911, operates an online service, with 1,700 boxes covering all areas of the national curriculum. Subscribing schools can book their choice online up to two years in advance. The boxes are delivered to and collected from the school twice each term.
The museum has a variety of annual memberships schemes, including four loan boxes per half term for pound;408 a year and three loan boxes per half term and three gallery visits for pound;540 a year. Boxes can also be lent out without membership for pound;30 a box per half term. Reading is particularly strong on Roman Silchester.
Joy McAlpine of Reading Museum managed the DfES-funded research project into loans, which focused on their use in 24 primary and secondary schools. Its findings were published in the Museums Journal earlier this year. She says: "A potentially alarming finding for museums that do not loan objects to schools is that 90 per cent of teachers prefer loans to museum visits. Interviews revealed that teachers viewed museum visits as a difficult extra-curricular option because of the constraints of time, money and the curriculum.
"Museum loans were perceived as easy to integrate with school culture and a powerful focus for developing whole-class learning. Not only were loans incorporated into interactive displays but they were used by an average of 140 students in 11 lessons in each school over the two to three-week loan period.
"Although past loans have been presented as history resources, teachers describe their use across the national curriculum, including citizenship. Loans are also not reliant on financial contribution from parents.
"Even if teachers prefer loans to visits, loans do not stop them visiting museums. In fact, in the survey, 55 per cent of teachers said the loans encouraged them to visit the Museum of Reading and other museums."
Most museums ask schools to check they are insured for damage or loss up to pound;500, but Reading Museum finds its loan boxes are well cared for by teachers.
At the other end of England, Beamish Museum in county Durham prides itself on the realism of its site visits and its loan boxes. Simon Woolley, keeper of education at the open air museum, has recently been working with teachers on placements to develop an industrialisation session for key stage 3 children, which he hopes will be up and running by February. It will look at mining, transport and mills from about 1750 to 1850. This term, the museum has been enacting a Victorian Christmas in a typical working-class family, and life for a miner's wife in an original pit cottage.
Mr Woolley says one of the most popular loans boxes is the mining box, complete with lamps, pickaxes, shovels and the like. The washday box includes carbolic soap, a posser (a plunger-type device used to wash clothes) and a wash tub. Boxes are free to schools that have been on a visit, with a refundable pound;10 deposit. Schools that have not had a visit pay pound;5, and all schools must collect and return the boxes. At the time of writing, 30 of the 33 Beamish boxes are out on loan to schools.
Booth Museum: 01273 292777
Merseyside Maritime Museum: 0151 207 0001
Reading Museum: 0118 939 9800
Beamish Museum: 0191 370 4011