Cross-curricular conjuring trick
The best known is probably the Fitzwilliam Museum, which houses the university's extensive collection of fine arts, but there are museums of zoology, archaeology and anthropology, rural history, and technology, as well as the botanic garden and a lively modern art gallery at Kettle's Yard.
Many of these are within walking distance of each other and of open green areas, ideal for letting off steam. But before you book your coach, beware: university museum opening hours were not drawn up with the national curriculum in mind. Without careful planning you could find the one you want is shut on the day you want it, or is open for only part of the day, or that only part of the museum is open for only part of the day.
At which point, enter Frances Sword, education officer at the Fitzwilliam. One of the two Cambridge-funded museum education officers, she has devised a scheme to help schools make more effective use of this unusually rich concentration of collections. Dubbed MAGIC - Museums and Galleries in Cambridge - it links eight Cambridge museums with local primary schools. Taking the theme Food for Thought, they planned a series of study trails for children, all of which involved visiting at least two museums, and ran them during June and July. Not only did it get children exploring cross-curricular themes through museum work but it introduced them and their teachers to some of the less well known of the city's many museums.
MAGIC requires money. Some museums had to be opened specially for the duration of the project. Cambridgeshire County Council, supportive as always of Frances Sword's work, provided some of the cash, as did the university and the Fitzwilliam Trustees, but still more was needed. Mills and Reeves, a local firm of solicitors, ran a quiz night at the Fitzwilliam to raise funds, with a weekend in Florence as the prize. Despite all this support, however, schools had to pay Pounds 30 to take part.
The children were to work directly in the galleries - no hiding away in education rooms - and with museum specialists too, so first those specialists had to be trained to work with children. Despite lack of experience with these groups, many quickly got the hang of it.
One expert from the botanic garden devised an exploration game which had the children dashing round the grounds examining plants carefully for clues about photosynthesis. Frances Sword is convinced it was the opportunity for the children to work with the experts that constituted one of the project's major strengths.
Another lay in the kinds of enquiry work that co-operative ventures of this sort can open up. Learning about food chains took the children to the museums of zoology and of earth sciences, bread took them to the museum of archaeology and anthropology and to the botanic garden, food's role in fuelling industry involved the County Folk Museum and Cambridge's little-known gem, the Museum of Technology.
It's an inspiring example of what can happen when museums work together in co-operation with schools.
The problem lies in taking it forward from here. Frances Sword would like to extend the project's scope into key stage 3, while maintaining the KS2 involvement as it keeps the experts on their toes. She would like to make the network a permanent fixture, and if possible to offer it free of charge, but this all costs money and she doesn't have it.
All the participating museums welcome inquiries from schools and will amply repay a visit, but in the meantime, anyone for a quiz night?
* MAGIC: Contact Frances Sword. Tel: 01223 332993.