Object lessons

Frances Farrer follows the process of understanding museum pieces Any single object, when you look at it, is the tip of an iceberg." Frances Sword, education officer at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, is explaining her method of deconstructing objects, "a pathway of questioning from the object to the culture that formed it".

Ms Sword believes children "need to connect with the special quality of an object". To do it, they can find out who made the object, why they made it the way they did, its use, who used it, what the object has to say about the person who commissioned or bought it, why it was considered worthy of a place in a museum, what its function is now.

The six and seven-year-old visitors to the museum from an East Anglian village school have spent a few minutes looking at pictures and artefacts and are asked to say what they have seen. They offer: "sword", "piano", "chair", "army stuff", "coffin", "gun", and "horse". What have these things in common? After a while it is seen that the things are somehow "not real".

Next, distinctions are made between natural and made things and the children are again sent off to the gallery to find objects to report on. Which group do the things belong to? The distinction between animal, vegetable and mineral is made and three children hold up writing boards so the found objects can be listed in categories. They find that all of them go on the mineral board.

Unexpectedly, Ms Sword takes off one of her boots. It turns out that the boots are animal, vegetable and mineral, being leather, rubber and metal. Which part of them might survive for 2,000 years, as some ancient Greek objects have done?

The children are invited to look for things in a picture or on a pot that are made of wood. They find "a stick", "a cart" (chariot), "a spear handle", "reins", and "sandals". They see that information about the way people lived can be found in artefacts and pictures.

For homework, they have to finish a story about a Greek boy who was to represent the city of Athens at the Olympic Games, using what they have seen from dresses, pots and brooches to tell the tale. "I'm fascinated," says one of their teachers. "This is a very good way to make their project work come to life. It makes you rethink how to use an object."

The technique began in Peckham, south London, where Ms Sword had her first teaching post. She wanted a neutral topic for a class of 65 children, mostly of Afro-Caribbean origin. It was not to be specific to one culture or set of assumptions. She chose to deconstruct an old book and says they got a good term's work out of it. It went something like this: cover -leather, tanneries, south London; binding - bookbinders, craft; paper - marbling, production; writing -alphabet, literacy; printing - development, mechanisation, ink, typefaces; books - varieties, fiction, non-fiction, story-telling.

"How much research can be inspired by a single object!" Ms Sword exclaims, producing the same battered copy of Bleak House she used for that first exercise at Peckham.

Further up the age range the process is more sophisticated. Five minutes after the infants' departure from the museum, a group of 11 and 12-year-olds arrive to look at portraiture. This time the investigation includes shape and colour, mood and impression. The group is invited to consider what a portrait is. "It must be someone real", "could be an animal" (there were pictures of horses in the gallery), "could be several people."

The pupils are advised to look at the degree of realism in the people in the pictures, at the direction of the light. They look at Georgian children depicted against a dull, grey sky, then consider a picture of Elizabeth Vernon, a Tudor lady dressed in white.

The discussion moves to the technique of etching a sketch for painting and how it is transferred to canvas. The group considers size, how to determine the heights of Tudor people by their graves, their clothes, the dimensions of Tudor houses. It becomes easy to determine that Elizabeth Vernon was noble.

Next, the group investigates the people who had been involved in making and delivering the items in the picture. It is a long list: carpet-makers, sailors, carters, tanners, silk weavers, seamstresses, velvet-makers, furriers, miners (gold, jewels), jewellers, lace-makers, cobblers, carpenters, makers of corsets, farthingales and wigs.

Finally, one of the girls is chosen to be put into a farthingale and corsets, with a demonstration of the function of points and explanation of the lack of buttons or any other form of fastening. She shows us how difficult it is to sit down, how restricted her movements are; her classmates groan in sympathy.

Ms Sword speaks with fervour of "the sheer quantity" of investigation that can follow from looking at one piece, and her sessions are intensive, energetic, densely packed with information and activity.

She has edited an anthology of children's poems inspired by the museum's collections. This Fitz me Fine includes the following work by David Attersall, which was written in response to a picture of racing greyhounds by John Skeaping:

Greyhounds dashing

Sleek body

Ribs outstanding

Muscles tense

Gliding as if on air

Racing against time.

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 lRB. Tel: 01223 332993

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