Snapshot of the history makers

24th June 2005 at 01:00
Museum for a Day projects have pupils in remote communities excited about the past, Deedee Cuddihy reports

Sheila Garson doesn't take her toothbrush everywhere she goes, but as cultural co-ordinator for heritage with Orkney Council, visiting schools on the area's more far flung islands can sometimes mean an overnight stay.

This has been the case with the two-year Museum for a Day programme she has been rolling out to Orkney's 23 primary schools since last October. Four schools have already taken part and at least five more are pencilled in for next year.

The idea for Museum for a Day came from Orkney Council's head of the heritage service, Steve Callaghan. Pupils are encouraged to bring an interesting object to school, write down what they have found out about it and put it on display for others to see.

"But it's much more than show and tell," says Ms Garson. "It's a structured project, very child-led and aimed at giving kids the chance to see how museums work, by letting them set up and run their own museum for a day."

Once a school has decided which class or classes are to take part, Ms Garson visits for half a day and speaks to the children, who can handle and talk about some museum objects she has brought with her.

"We discuss how taking a good look at things can help you find out about them and give you clues as to how old they are and what they were used for," she explains.

"Then we talk about where you can go to find out more about an object, such as books and the internet and people, because often the best person to ask about an object is the person who is lending or donating it.

"I think it's important to let the children know that even the most mundane object could have a good story behind it.

"The children involved in the project decide what to bring in. It doesn't have to be particularly old; it's whatever they think is interesting and has a bit of history to it. It could be from home, it could be from a friend or loaned by someone in the community."

There is then a two-week gap before Ms Garson's second visit. During that period, pupils look out for the objects they want to include in their museum. Letters are sent home to parents about the project, explaining that nothing too valuable, highly treasured or particularly fragile should be brought in. Notices may be put in shops asking local people and organisations if they have anything interesting that could be loaned for the day.

By the time Ms Garson arrives for her second visit, when she comes for a whole day, the pupils will have prepared information labels. "Some will have written a lot, others just a little, depending on how much they have been able to find out," she says.

"An Orkney Museums expert usually comes with me and looks at what's been brought in and gives a historian's view, if possible.

"Then the objects are laid out, either in the classroom or a community room if it is a community school, and the museum is open to visitors, with the children acting as guides. The school may have decided just to invite other pupils and parents or they may invite the wider community.

"That was the case on Shapinsay, where the project involved the whole school of 20 pupils, from P1 to P7.

"There, we had everything from a fossil to an air raid siren that had been used on the island in the Second World War. The man who runs the post office had it and loaned it to the school for the day, and even set it off for us.

"One of the teachers brought in her academic gown, made a label for it and wore it. The children had never seen one before and found it quite scary!"

At two other schools, the museum project was taken on by combined P4-P7 classes, while Orkney's biggest primary school, Papdale Primary in Kirkwall with 600 pupils, did it with one of its three P4 classes . It was so successful that it will do it again next term with a P7 class.

"The feedback from the schools has all been positive, not least because of the involvement with parents and the community," says Ms Garson.

On Hoy, the lifeboat museum lent their role of honour. Elsewhere, two vintage cars were loaned for the day.

"Some of the schools have had a bit of a Second World War or Victorian theme for their museum, to tie in with a class topic," says Ms Garson, "and Shapinsay included enterprise in their project by running a cafe and making some money for the school."

Jane Bruce, a depute headteacher at Papdale Primary, says: "The project really touched on several areas of the curriculum, including citizenship and creativity, because the children made posters advertising the event and wrote letters asking for items to be loaned.

"Of course, the onus is on the class teacher to make as much as they want out of it.

"We had objects ranging in age from 100-years-old to 8-years-old; everything from a butter churn, which the children were allowed to handle, to toys that pupils had been given when they were born. The school lent our old bell - the type that had to be hand rung - and some old textbooks, which were quite un-PC, compared to nowadays."

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