Postcards from the cutting edge;Subject of the week;Technology

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Justina Hart takes a fantastic journey with a museum's digital photography project.

Walking with Dino-saurs, the BBC series that brings prehistoric monsters back to life, demonstrates perfectly the educational value of mixing the extremely old with the very new. The museum sector, too, is revitalising incredible collections from the past through the use of new technologies.

A 1997 government report, Connecting the Learning Society recognised the central role museums played in providing content for the National Grid for Learning. Museums followed with their own report, A Netful of Jewels: new museums in the learning age (1999), explaining how and why museums and galleries were embracing change. Increasingly, they are producing CD-Roms, creating digital museums on websites, putting their archives or libraries online, and using touch-screen interactives in the galleries.

London's Victoria and Albert museum, established by Henry Cole in 1909 after the Great Exhibition, "was always about contemporary technology and innovation", says Vamp;A course organiser Amanda Sharkey. As a design museum, it is particularly keen to explore digital technology, which has had a profound impact on graphic design and photography. With the aid of sponsorship from camera manufacturer Canon, the Vamp;A set up the Canon Photography Gallery, bought 15 digital cameras and is running a series of photography projects for schools, community groups and the public.

Teachers are drawn by the chance to work with state-of-the-art equipment. Although still prohibitively expensive, digital cameras have many advantages over traditional machines - hundreds of images can be taken and the results viewed immediately. "They are terrific for throwing ideas about," says Ms Sharkey. "They help graphic design or design communications teaching because you can move ideas around freely, print out loads of copies and understand what ideas work."

The most recent digital schools project was called 50 Schools Elsewhere. Year 5 pupils from 50 schools were invited to take part in a travel project which supported literacy as well as ICT. Pupils went on an "expedition" to the Indian, south-east Asian or Japanese gallery. They took written, drawn and photographic travel notes of their adventures and used digital cameras and Canon colour copiers to take photographs of themselves. These were used to design and make digital postcards, which were posted on the Vamp;A's website.

Amanda Sharkey is co-ordinating a post-16 photography project involving 120 art and design A-level and GNVQ pupils from five schools. One of the aims is to encourage students to think imaginatively about photography and the past.

In December, the students will come in for a two-day seminar organised around presentations from four young, successful photographers. They will be set a brief on the theme of time and encouraged to come back to the museum to develop their ideas. A private chatroom on the Vamp;A's website will allow them to keep in touch with the project co-ordinators. In April 2000, all 120 students will return to present their projects.

The Vamp;A hopes a blueprint for working with students using prints, drawings and photographs will emerge. But education staff are keen to stress that the idea of the digital museum must be used with real visits. In the future, teachers and pupils will start bringing their own digital cameras into museums. They will work in smaller, more independent groups, having downloaded teacher's packs and guidelines from museum websites.

Details, Vamp;A education department, tel: 0207 942 2197

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