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Our own Aztecs

Pupils can savour the museum experience without leaving the classroom - by creating their own. Chris Fautley explains

What do the following have in common? Dinosaurs, natural history, Aztecs, toys, the Romans and the Second World War. Answer: all featured in winning museums in this year's A Museum in the Classroom award run by the Campaign for Museums and aimed at primary schools. The 11 best school museums were rewarded with pound;250 to spend on a museum or educational visit.

The scheme is principally driven by a teachers' resource pack (useful whether or not you enter the competition) that offers guidance on how best to exploit the compulsion that most of us have to collect things - the one factor forming the foundation for museums great and small. Issues covered include building a collection and how to display and care for it, as well as teaching ideas and links to the curriculum.

Short on space? No matter. Build a temporary museum. Stuck for exhibits? Make your own. Year 5 pupils at Thornhill Primary School in Southampton took over the school hall, set up their museum in the morning, opened it to parents and pupils in the afternoon, and then dismantled it. They chose the Aztecs as their theme - not only because it was a topic they were studying, but because they were unable to visit the "real" exhibition then showing at the Royal Academy. As well as children making exhibits, the school hired replica Aztec artefacts, including instruments and costumes. As a finishing touch, they made their museum interactive.

The whole of Year 5 was involved, says history manager and project leader Helen Picariello. They made necklaces and medallions from card, foil and beads, as well as designing cardboard shields and mosaics of Aztec gods.

Some made simple skirts and tops to complement the hired costumes.

"I knew they liked history, but I was surprised at how enthusiastic they were," she says. "I think part of that is because they knew their parents were coming in, so it gave them a real purpose."

Exhibits totalled around 150 - each child making their own necklace and headband. "Experts" were appointed to answer questions on subjects such as food, religion, sacrifices and gods. That meant they had to do their own research. To ensure knowledge was put to good use, crib cards were issued to museum visitors to encourage them to ask the right sort of questions.

Further interactivity came from children dressed as Aztecs. "That angle of it was absolutely superb, because they actually were living - being the person," says headteacher Jacqui Greethurst.

She relates how a parent wished to know how long one pupil - in the role of Montezuma - had been learning about his character. "How long have you been in this role?" she enquired. "I was born to it. I have no choice," he responded - not dropping out of character for one moment.

Besides history there were links to other subjects: English - each pupil produced a museum booklet; art; ICT - they tried their hand at Powerpoint presentations; and music. "They had a go at composing some Aztec-type music," says Helen Picariello.

Jacqui Greethurst says: "It drew together what I have been trying to do here for ages - which is make it a truly cross-curricular subject so that it gives meaning to art, science and all the history things we are concentrating on." All the children were committed and had enjoyed it and learned from it, she says. It was an approach that had proven that all children are teachable. "That is a key thing from my point of view. All the children have been able to take part in this."

They were thrilled to learn they had won a prize - determined after entrants had submitted photographs and notes promoting their museum. "The entries were all extremely inspiring and showed a great deal of creativity in their presentation and also in the involvement of the children in the projects," says Charles Saumarez Smith, director of the National Gallery and chair of the judging panel. Thornhill decided to use their prize money to explore local history, with a walk in the city's old quarter and a boat trip around Southampton docks.

More than 450,000 people attended the Royal Academy's Aztec exhibition.

They might not have been quite able to match that at this Southampton school, but almost all the parents who were able to visit the school's museum did so.

For a Museum in the Classroom resource pack, send an A4 sae (69p) to: The Campaign for Museums, PO Box 9995, London SW1W

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