ICT has revolutionised museums. There are lots of hands-on interactive displays that will reinforce ideas introduced in science lessons and provide an opportunity for using and seeing equipment that is not available to schools. The recently opened museum in Docklands boasts a Mudlarks Gallery where you can winch up a cargo and so appreciate the value of pulleys and the relationship between load and effort. Most schools are within day-trip distance of a museum that will show something of the history and application of science.
"Blockbuster" museums can get very crowded, like the Science Museum in London and the Magna Centre in Rotherham. Museum education departments can advise on how to make the most of a visit and provide resources for particular age groups. Consider museums that have a narrower specialist focus which will link in with a particular topic. If your school's in north-west England and you want to brighten up work on catalysts in chemistry, try the Catalyst Museum in Widnes, which also offers workshops (tel: 0151 420 1121). For work on engines and steam power, go a bit out of the way in Thamesmead to see James Watt's gigantic rotative beam engines in a historic pumping house last used in 1953 at Crossness Pumping Station (tel: 020 8303 6723). The only surviving (and working) example of a compound horizontal V steam pumping engine built by John Rennie can be seen in the Brunel Engine House at Rotherhithe (www.brunelenginehouse.org.uk).
Cornwall has lots of early engines in the museums devoted to tin mining.
The Black Country Museum in Dudley also has an engine, as well as a working blacksmith's and foundry, and an early chemist's shop. You are even shown how pills were made before the days of the big pharmaceutical companies.
For biologists, especially at KS45, you can't beat Downe House in Kent (tel: 01689 859119). Charles Darwin lived there from 1842 to 1882 and the centrepiece is his study, set out as it was in his lifetime; other rooms recreate his lifestyle and interactive displays capture the essence of his life's work.
Apart from its obvious use as background material when preparing for a museum visit - KS2 will lap up "Ginger" in the British Museum, and some of the "oddball" information - this piece raises issues that impact on ethical debate in PSHE, citizenship, history or RE in KS4 and general studies in KS5. Who "owns" an artefact from the past, especially the ancient past? Who "owns" a body once its "resident" has departed? What is the time lapse before a corpse may be exhibited in good taste? Who has the right to view it? Who should bear the cost of museums - the state or the visitor? How should our colonial past be displayed and labelled and what issues are involved? Compare the ethical issues raised by a museum with those faced by a zoo or circus.
By its very nature, a museum is a reflection of local culture and heritage, whether it is a modest affair such as a Breton cider farm or a national treasure trove like the Vatican Museums in Rome. At KS3 students could research online and produce an illustrated leaflet or poster with key information, such as location, how to get there, opening times, prices and top exhibits. At KS4 they could develop the theme in more depth. Or they might describe an imaginary visit to practise the past tense. Encourage them to incorporate previously learned language - egadjectives (interesting, boring, exciting, unusual, impressed, disappointed) or verbs (like, dislike, prefer, find, think, learn).
Museums offer two outstanding ways to develop learning opportunities in history. The obvious one is to exploit their content, and most of us can devise trails, quizzes, projects and assignments to get students looking at museum exhibits. The slightly less obvious way is to look at the exhibits and consider what they tell us about the people who created the exhibitions, as well as what they tell us about the people who created the artefacts themselves. Ask some KS2 students why Tutankhamun's tomb excited so much interest in the 1930s. Was it the architecture of the tomb or was it the gold? Did this tempt the British Museum to exhibit the gold objects above all others? Did that create an unbalanced image of Egypt as a place dripping with gold? Do present-day exhibits present a balanced image? Here is the heart of a great activity suitable for all ages and topics. At any key stage, ask students to design an exhibition for a museum on whatever topic they are studying. Give them 10 valuable (intellectually andor monetarily) exhibits and then tell them there is only room for five in the museum. Then ask them to design and justify their choices.