The Royal Marines Museum in Southsea deserves a medal for its outstanding and imaginative school-friendly education programme, says Chris Fautley.
In a former barracks in Southsea, which was once home to more than a thousand marines, is the Royal Marines Museum. The servicemen moved in 1991 to Portsmouth, but the museum, founded in 1958, remains, along with its extensive legacy of warfare through the ages. A full repertoire of media is employed to tell the story, from archive film and modern technology, to the kit which would have found itself on active service.
"History museums are not boring," Matthew Frape, education officer at the museum, explained to a group of year 7-9 pupils from Aldro school, an independent prep in Shackleford, near Godalming, Surrey. He need hardly have mentioned it. The children fell on the themed "base stations", which each contained a pack of objects relating to a certain aspect of marine and military history.
All Kitted Out contained a 1941 field dressing, a water bottle, ammunition holder and bayonet holder; Get Personal had wartime PE drill tables, a marine's prayer book from 1942 and a Christmas card from the same year.
What made the session so successful were the cards which accompanied each pack, which prompted questions to answer or required further investigation. That and Matthew Frape's inexhaustible enthusiasm.
"There are some weird objects you won't recognise," he said. "Some things are fragile - even so, take them out, get your hands on them."
A Flash in the Pan, one of the most popular (and certainly the loudest) of the hands-on exhibits, showed how a musket works, cleverly demonstrating the process that ignites the gunpowder. Other noteworthy displays include The Victorian Age - covering African campaigns - and the reconstruction of a First World War trench.
The sections on Northern Ireland and the Falklands conflict serve as a remind-er that warfare is not confined to the distant past. The museum gives visitors the chance to try on 32lb and 52lb backpacks, which are not quite as heavy as those carried for miles on the great "yomps" f the South Atlantic campaign. Artefacts include an Argentinian conscript's ration pack and soldiers' letters home.
Jungle warfare is vividly brought to life with a reconstruction of Pacific jungles during the Second World War and features live scorpions. You might wonder what a condom is doing alongside more standard army issue. The answer is that they keep water out of your gun barrel, apparently.
The Burma Campaign display included one of the more unusual try-it-yourself exhibits: "Check your boots," the children were urged. "Something has crawled into them and shaking them will not get it out." The invaders turned out to be a spider and a cockroach. Reassuringly these were of the plastic, non-deadly variety.
History can come in small pieces and few are smaller, or more poignant, than the glass retrieved from Hiroshima after the atomic bomb had fused masonry into glass fragments, or a piece of shrapnel removed from an officer's head after the attack on Malta in 1942.
Nick Swan, Aldro's head of history, thought the museum was an excellent place to build on students' interest in history and that handling exhibits was an especially good way to do it. He praised Matthew Frape as "a great enthusiast who was very knowledgeable about his stuff".
It was a sentiment shared by his students. "He made it fun." said one.
Matthew Frape himself is quite clear about his role: "I wanted to produce a series of activities that you cannot do in the classroom. If you can do it in the classroom, why come out?" Be assured, the museum is reason enough, but Matthew Frape has still assembled an imaginative and school-friendly education programme. The education pack is free and much thought has obviously gone into it.The key stage 2 activity sheets are also excellent and engaging, involving various challenges.
If there was a medal for outstanding service to history and education, this museum would surely have earned one.
* The Royal Marines Museum, Southsea, Hampshire PO4 9PX. Tel: 01705 819385. www.royalmuseum.co.uk Open daily, from 10am. School groups 75p per child, teachers free.