Interview

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Frazer Swift, head of learning at the Museum of London, welcomed 100,000 children last year but says the team is still struggling to entice secondary students

What first attracted you to museums?

In a way, it was a strange area for me to go into because I grew up in Barnsley where there were no museums. But I remember visiting a museum in Scarborough on family holidays and later going to the National Gallery. They just seemed like such magical places to me. Museums are all about communication and finding creative ways to communicate - much like teaching.

How far have museums come in terms of working with schools?

The status of learning has been transformed over the past 10 years. Before then, learning was an add-on. Now it is central to what we do. To reflect this, our learning department has doubled over the past five years to 16 people. The terminology has also changed. The profession now talks about learning rather than education. Education is seen as a one-way process where we the experts transmit information. Now the focus is on meeting the needs of the individual and inspiring curiosity as opposed to dishing out facts.

What has been your most successful learning resource or exhibition?

The Dig in 2001 was very successful. We buried real Roman artefacts in sand and asked key stage 2 pupils and families to excavate them using real tools and methods, and with the help of practising archaeologists.

How realistic is the Government's five hours per week cultural push in schools?

It is ambitious, but it is good to set the bar high and it is great that cultural experiences have been given such high priority.

Is it reaping rewards?

It is at the Museum of London. Although half of the museum is closed at the moment, last year saw 100,000 pupils came through our doors. However, we are still struggling to entice secondary aged pupils out of the classroom. We do better than most with lots of outreach and video conferencing work, but teachers find it hard to break away from busy timetables and exam pressures.

What's been your proudest moment professionally?

We have an outreach drama production called London's Calling, which examines the contributions of black Londoners from Roman times to the Stephen Lawrence murder. Seeing rowdy Year 9s reduced to tears by the emotional intensity of the performance made me realise what an impact museums can have on young people. More than 30,000 pupils have seen the performance.

Do pupils learn about themselves at the museum?

Absolutely - this is what underpins our learning programmes. We hope that every pupil leaves with an enhanced sense of identity as a result of engaging with the story of their city. We try to present London's history on a personal level so that children can empathise with the stories of people who have lived in London in the past.

For example, we give them opportunities to meet costumed interpreters and storytellers, or older people who have experienced working in the docks or lived through the Second World War.

How relevant is the museum to international pupils?

We work hard to ensure our programmes reflect London's diversity. There is a richness of language and experience that is very special to London. We offer a wide range of programmes that tap into that diversity, such as a secondary session called Belonging, which looks at the experiences of refugees in London through the ages.

We also have a primary session that draws on our oral history archive to explore cultural change in the 20th century - in particular, the migration of Caribbean people and the Windrush in 1948. Another of our secondary sessions, Exploring Diverse London, includes a drama workshop on the themes of identity, a visit to our London Sugar Slavery gallery and a Bollywood dance workshop.

What is the best thing about your job?

I work with such a wide range of people - no two days are the same. I also really value seeing visitors enjoying and learning from the exhibitions. It is that immediate connection with people that you also find in schools.

What would you do if you were Schools Secretary for a day?

I would create a fund for museums to help them offer outreach programmes to secondary schools that excite and encourage pupils. I would also reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved in school trips. A lot of teachers report how time consuming it is to get parental permission and perform risk-assessments.

What is the best excuse you have ever heard?

When I was a teacher, one boy said he couldn't hand in his homework because he had stored it behind the radiator for safe-keeping, but then his dad had wallpapered over it. I had to congratulate him on his creativity

www.museumoflondon.org.uk

CV

2007-present: Head of learning, Museum of London

2005-present: Expert adviser, Heritage Lottery Fund

1999-present: Associate tutor, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

2002-2007: Deputy head of access and learning, Museum of London

1996-2002: Museum development manager, London Museums Agency (part-time). Museum learning consultant (part-time)

1995: MA in Museum Studies, University of Leicester

1994-1996: Education adviser, RSPCA

1991-1994: Interpretation unit manager, Science Museum

1989-1991: Assistant education manager, Science Museum

1984-1989: Curatorial positions, Science Museum

1983-1984: Art and history teacher, secondary school, Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

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