Museum education

6th April 2001 at 01:00
DEVELOPING CROSS-CURRICULAR LEARNING IN MUSEUMS AND GALLERIES. By Sue Wilkinson and Sue Clive, edited by Jennifer Blain. Trentham Books pound;12.95. BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM. By Andrew Burnett and John Reeve. British Museum Press pound;12.99.

The British Museum was founded with the aim of representing the sum of human knowledge, and although few museums, not even the BM, would make that claim today, they remain unrivalled repositories both of materials and expertise for innovative learning across the curriculum.

It is too easy to assume that museums and galleries exist primarily to serve history or art teachers. Developing Cross-Curricular Learning in Museums and Galleries explodes that myth.

Beginning with a brain-storming session by focus groups of various professionals - who all "see" objects or images in their own ways - it goes on to explore 13 very different case studies based at museums and galleries throughout Britain.

The variety of work is truly inspiring. Pre-school children in Worcester produced their own versions of A N Pybus's print "Bondi Beach"; primary children in Stoke-on-Trent tracked a Greek vase from antiquity via the 18th-century Grand Tour to its present home in their local museum; Year 9 and 10 pupils in Banbury investigated paintings at their local gallery through dance; and GCSE students in London used music to explore the art of William Morris with the orchestra of St John's, Smith Square.

Work can focus on a single object - a Jamaican grandmother's cooking pot in Southwark, or a chocolate cup with an image of slavery from Leighton House in London - or on a concept, such as the Brighton children who worked with a set of photographs on the theme "the shipping forecast".

Any teacher will find ideas and inspiration. The examples are tried and tested and presented with an experienced eye for practical details, from curricular planning (Who is it for? What is the point of it?) to ce-breaker ideas to familiarise pupils with the museum setting.

There is advice on how to select objects to work with, on good questions to ask, and how to help pupils "see" the difference between the objects and the context in which they are being presented.

For teachers battling with SATs, league tables and an endlessly changing curriculum, here is a refreshing reminder of the power of imaginative learning.

Equally imaginative are the questions, such as "What time is the 10.45 tour?" regularly asked at the British Museum information desk (my favourite: "Where are the Belgian Marbles?").

Behind the Scenes at the British Museum tells a fascinating story of the work that goes on at this amazing repository in the words of the museum's curators and experts. Their enthusiasm for the most unlikely subject quickly becomes infectious: "My field research on felt yurts and felt-making among Kyrgyz nomadic herders showed me just what a challenge this would be," says one curator, faced with the problem of mounting an exhibition of Kyrgyz feltwork, and of making it attractive and exciting to the public.

As well as presenting the unfamiliar, the BM is adept at presenting the familiar in an exciting way. Not only was the Rosetta Stone not meant to be stuck upright, in the way so many of us have seen it, but it was originally grey, not black: careful research and conservation has meant we can see this intriguing and important artefact in something much closer to its original state. The book covers the debate surrounding issues such as the Elgin Marbles, or the presentation of dead bodies, without coming down on either side.

There is a lot of material here which can be used to follow up the work described in Cross-Curricular Learning by considering the role we expect our museums and galleries to play in the 21st century.


Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road sixth form college, Cambridge

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