See slowly and closely

10th May 1996 at 01:00
As National Museums Week approaches, John Reeve recommends books which explain how to make the most of school visits


The Arts Council of England and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Pounds 15

Group for Education in Museums,

co Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, Chatham, Kent ME4 4TE. Tel: 01634 812551 ENGAGE, co 46A Streatley Road, London NW6 7LS. Tel: 0171 624 7411 Museums Week runs from May 18 - 26 and is supported by the Museums and Galleries Commission, 16 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AA

One set of Victorian values that may be worth reviving is a belief in properly funded public museums and galleries, once seen as organically linked to public morals, personal development and economic growth.

In 1988 Thomas Greenwood, a promoter of public libraries and museums, offered some timely advice on using museums, quoted in Cabinets of Curiosity: "Avoid attempting to see too much" and "see slowly, observe closely and think much on what you see".

We should still heed that advice: today the average time spent in front of a painting or a Greek vase is a few seconds. Some people treat museums and galleries as a form of cultural fast food; for others they may be shrines, or inspiration for the national curriculum and lifelong learning.

Museums are responding as never before to many non-school audiences, such as adults or disabled users. We are trying to keep multiculturalism alive and to develop new technologies, while fund raising and trying to cope with the demands of the national curriculum. Just when teachers needed more practical training in using museums and galleries, the time available on most initial teacher training courses has dwindled.

Museum and gallery educators have responded pragmatically with contributions to Grants for Education Support and Training, Inset in all shapes and sizes, and new MA courses, such as the one run jointly by the Institute of Education, University of London and the British Museum and Victoria Albert Education Departments. There has been an eruption of books and articles, many written by museum educators. Now Graeme Talboys, who has been a teacher and museum educator, offers clear, step-by-step advice on the nuts and bolts for new and not so new teachers. Much of this is bullet-pointed, and teachers will want to use the check lists in particular.

Graeme Talboys is also helpful on the differences between school and museum learning and the distinction between the "intended" and the "observed" curriculum. Museums and galleries have their own curriculum, one that is not finite and pre-determined: children and teachers alike can free themselves from the confines of subject areas and text-based learning to use the full range of what Harvard professor of education Howard Gardner terms "multiple intelligences".

As Graeme Talboys stresses, museum visits are innately cross-curricular and provide excellent opportunities for mixed ability learning at different speeds and different levels of concentration and critical awareness. It is difficult to get the balance right between a disastrous free-range visit on one hand, and on the other, an over-regimented assault course with a workbook designed to kill off any wish to return.

Talboys also explores topics such as working with objects, long-term strategies and how to develop museum skills. He seems rather over-optimistic about loan services and the problems of getting hold of museum education officers, a major frustration for teachers.

It is unfortunate that this book is so expensive; it needs to be in paperback and illustrated. However, it succeeds in its claim to be an "introductory handbook". Perhaps the next edition could extend the reading list to include works such as Eileen Hooper-Greenhill's Museum and Gallery Education.

Cabinets of Curiosity is designed for art gallery educators and would also be a great help in the vast majority of museums and galleries that are without educators. It provides crisp advice on planning, funding and running services, succinct accounts of the development of art gallery education, and advice on how to approach funding agencies.

The text is punctuated with provocative questions, and the bibliography and contacts list are very thorough. Certain advice - on family workshops, artists' contracts and volunteers, for example - is clearly written with the benefit of hindsight.

In their earlier book, Substance and Shadow (London Arts Board 1992), the authors reported on teachers critical of what museums and galleries offer them, and gallery educators critical of teachers. One way to resolve this problem is to make even better use of the opportunities for dialogue in the two main bodies that exist already: The Group for Education in Museums and ENGAGE (formerly NAGE). The forthcoming Channel 4 programmes on using museums (May 14, 21: video and booklet available) show how much is already achieved in partnership between museums and schools.

John Reeve is head of education at the British Museum

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