Let's get fossilised

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
The world of museums is an obvious next step for teachers seeking job satisfaction. Emma Burns finds out why

For Sue Halliday it isn't the gasps of enthralled children that she enjoys most. It isn't even when 150 seven-year-olds clamour for her autograph. It is when children come up to her and confide: "I want to be a scientist like you."

Those are the moments that Sue, who was a teacher for nine years, knows she has done the right thing in leaving the classroom to work for a museum.

As education manager for Catalyst Science Discovery Centre and Museum in Widnes, Cheshire, it is her job not just to teach children science but to wow them and make them see its fascination.

One way she does it is by putting on shows three or four times a day for a few days every fortnight. "The light show makes me feel like Father Christmas in his grotto," she laughs. "I switch on lava lamps, plasma balls and fibre-optics, fluorescent lights and neon while I talk about light.

Then I turn everything off and light a candle."

With the lecture theatre plunged into darkness, she sets iron filings aflame to make fireworks.

"You couldn't possibly do that in a primary school - it's too dangerous - but here I have the freedom, so long as we do the risk assessments, to try things out," says Sue. "The children love it. Seeing their faces so enraptured is amazing. As a teacher you have to be a bit of an actor, standing up and putting yourself out there. These shows take that one step further. I get such a buzz from doing them."

With education an increasingly important part of the raison d'etre of museums, art galleries and libraries, there are now an estimated 4,000 education officers across the UK, earning on average pound;19,400 a year.

Dr John Stevenson, director of the Group for Education in Museums, says:

"There have always been educators in museums. Now education is recognised as one of museums' core functions.

"A good educator - and that doesn't always have to be a former teacher - can bring rather dusty objects to life for a different audiences: everyone from pre-school children to very elderly people."

Former primary school teacher Jean Harvest goes one step further than Sue Halliday. As education officer at Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre in Wiltshire, she doesn't just use showmanship, she has developed a whole range of characters from different periods to bring history to life for visitors to the museum. As she discusses them she naturally falls into character, her voice changing from the pinched tones of the Victorian schoolmarm to the dispirited drone of the child evacuee.

"The Victorian schoolmarm does carry a cane but she is very proud to say that she has never had to use it with any pupil in her school," says Jean.

"I have a mini schoolroom at the museum where I go through a few lessons with the school groups. They do a little bit of writing on slates, some reading and some number work.

"I'm horrendous - so fierce. What is absolutely fascinating is how frequently teachers tell me they have never seen little X behave so well.

Some children definitely respond positively to it."

She has a gentler Victorian teacher - a dame in a mobcap - for infant classes because they tend to burst into tears at the very sight of the black-clad schoolmarm with her pince-nez perched on her nose.

Then there is her mediaeval woman, her housekeeper, her evacuee schoolteacher, her Mrs Brunel - wife of the famous engineer - and the reminiscence clubs she runs for people in retirement homes, when she takes along objects from the first few decades of the 20th century.

"Someone who has been silent for six months may suddenly start to talk when they pick up something that sparks off a memory," Jean says. "It doesn't matter if it's a replica or real. Touching things is very important for people. It is very poignant to witness."

That is why she also has collections of objects from Viking, Saxon, Roman, Tudor and other times that she takes into schools for children to handle.

"The buzz for me is seeing their reaction," she says.

Anra Kennedy, although also a museum education officer, has an extraordinarily different experience. As head of learning for a national website, 24 Hour Museum and editor of its key stage 2 version, Show Me, her contact with her audience is entirely virtual.

She posts stories which draw on material in museums and galleries around the country, making them as interesting and topical as possible.

But she never sees children's reactions for herself. The only way she knows what they think is when they choose to communicate by email.

"I do miss day-to-day contact with children but this is absolutely my dream job," she says.

"What we do is take a story that is arts and culture related and try and interest the children to find out more."

Anra is in the privileged position of being able to get access to pretty much every museum in the UK.

"One of my favourite days was spent in a tiny storeroom at Norwich Castle museum going through boxes of AngloSaxon objects from a hoard found in the 50s,"she says. "There was a sieve made from antler bone, bottle tops, pots, coins and statues. Touching these objects which hadn't been seen for years and years while the curator talked about them with so much enthusiasm and knowledge was just fantastic.

"Another amazing experience was writing about the Gunpowder Plot for a website commissioned by the parliamentary archives. I went along miles and miles of corridors and in three separate lifts to the top of the Victorian Tower in the House of Lords - it felt like being in a submarine."

Of couse there is a downside too. "It seems to be an unwritten rule that the technology will always go wrong at the last minute, especially when you have got a deadline," says Anra. "Sitting for many many hours waiting for the computer to work can be very frustrating."

As burning DVDs and CD-roms and writing text for computers becomes an ever more important part of the education officer's job, those frustrations are likely to become more widespread.

Poor pay, having few or no colleagues, and being employed on contracts that may not be renewed can also be a problem for museum education officers.

But those the job suits find it so rewarding to be able to pursue their passion for science or history or art and impart it to others that they generally seem to find the disadvantages insignificant.

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