Frances Farrer explains the updated role of the Natural History Museum.
The printed guide to the Natural History Museum calls it "the finest museum of nature in the world", a claim reinforced by the spectacular Victorian Gothic building even before you arrive at the displays. A monument to the Victorian zest for collection, public display and the sharing of knowledge, the museum is built like a cathedral.
In this august setting the displays have been sensitively modernised, carefully lit, clearly set out, well labelled. The new Earth Galleries offer Visions of Earth, The Power Within, Restless Surface, and British Fossils. You can compare and contrast such exhibits with their Victorian predecessors: original mahogany display cases, crammed to the quarter-inch with tiny creatures pinned to boards, immaculately labelled in copperplate handwriting.
Museum scientists and education staff are constantly devising new materials, new questions, new approaches. As they cannot accompany individual school groups they concentrate on the design of visits and teacher back-up.
Head of education Roy Hawkey says the museum "has to create an atmosphere that stimulates, and also reflects something of the way science moves forward". He wants visits to "accommodate the national curriculum, rather than just blindly, narrowly follow it".
Resource material is written to promote further questioning. In the How Do You Move? exhibit most of the questions require pupils physically to move. For instance, they have to look in a mirror and watch which parts of themselves they can move at will. They must feel their arms for bones. They go to pull a lever, noticing where their arms bend. Then they watch a video. The functioning of the ball and socket joint is shown by placing a light bulb in a coconut shell.
Teachers on the first Humans as Organisms in-service training day organised jointly with the Science Museum are excited. "It really gives ideas," one says Teachers using the museum need not only their own clear objectives but also guidance from the museum, including training for visiting teachers. INSET courses can be adapted from existing programmes or the museum can generate new ones, with costs related to the preparation involved.
Schools manager Carol Levick says the joint Humans as Organisms course was "the best we've done. It's a theme where the two museums have absolutely equal things to offer".
She explains that the museum's Human Biology exhibition meets the national curriculum requirements at key stage 2 on how the body works mechanically. Living processes at the micro-levels - cells, growth, reproduction, nutrition, digestion and so on - are shown at the Science Museum.
"There are so many models you can't get at school. It makes it much easier for the children to understand," says one teacher. "Some of the models you could never re-create - the baby in a womb for example," says a south London teacher. "Kids like to see these things reinforced," adds a teacher from Berkshire.
A major worry about museum visits can be keeping the children's concentration. "There's a danger of kids just whizzing round banging buttons," says one teacher, "but this sort of day helps sharpen your perception of what's available so you can avoid that kind of waste."
The museum's teachers' centre is staffed almost entirely by ex-teachers. Entry is free with a union card or a headteacher's letter. Teachers are encouraged to plan, ask questions, and use the CD-Roms, books, charts and audio visual materials. Every year 2,500 teachers visit the centre, and most want advice from an education officer. There are 350 scientists in the building, after all.
"The worksheets are more involved than they appear," says Bill Clarke of the teachers' centre. "They help younger children interpret what they're seeing. They help with selecting themes, and they help children slow down and engage constructively and purposefully. You learn from specimens or models, not text."
Roy Hawkey believes the museum helps to show science as a living discipline. "The new Earth Galleries emphasise science as a process of discovery - showing the current model, but not regarding it as fixed. Museums are well placed to give teachers and students a perception of the way ideas have changed, and to give it in an historical and cultural context."
For a teacher from the American School in London, the issues were simpler. "Science gets a bad rap. People think it's nerdy. Here, they really show learning can be fun."
The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD. School bookings tel: 0171 938 9090 at least a week ahead. Entrance free on weekdays