The Internet and computers with video-conferencing facilities are giving remote schools access to national collections of artefacts, reports Douglas Blane.
More and more museums are providing exhibits specifically to be handled - particularly by children. Rocks, fossils and robust artefacts can be picked up, turned over and scrutinised to create an experience with much greater educational impact than peering at static exhibits through glass.
The essence of such sessions, you might think, would be the presence of the child and exhibit in the same place at the same time. But you'd be wrong.
The Internet is a versatile medium but it can't yet transmit the sensation of touch, so there is certainly something missing from a "handling session" that uses video conferencing technology. But it's nothing essential, according to the participants in a project organised jointly by the National Museums of Scotland and Argyll and Bute Council.
The educational essence of the encounter, it would seem, is interacting with the exhibit rather than touching it. And that can be done very successfully at a distance.
"We've been offering video conferencing calls to schools for about four years," says NMS education officer Emma Webb, "but until last year it was on an ad hoc basis, with NMS staff providing video lessons to schools on request, on a range of subjects and themes linked to our collections."
Following a meeting with John McPhee, distance learning manager at Argyll and Bute, a pilot project was set up to evaluate what the museum was doing and suggest ways it might be improved. Argyll and Bute was a natural choice as a partner because of its relatively long involvement with information and communications technology. An authority responsible for 95 schools dotted about 2,680 square miles of rugged, sparsely populated countryside - which includes 26 inhabited islands - has a powerful incentive to build communications around electronics rather than transport.
"Because we've so many small, isolated schools," says Mr McPhee, "we organised them into co-operatives to pool resources. But that didn't bring them physically any closer, so we provided computers and the schools used email at first, then video conferencing when it became available.
"When we heard NMS had got into distance learning, I offered our schools and our experience in the medium for an extended trial. The time and expense it takes our classes to visit Edinburgh meant it would be very nice to bring the museum to the schools."
Pupils an teachers from three island and three mainland primaries have taken part in the project. Evaluation at each of the four stages which have been completed so far has led to the children becoming more actively involved in a broader range of activities during the sessions. In the early days, although time was allowed for children's questions, the emphasis was on showing and telling.
"The children are now taking stuff from Emma, following it through, then feeding it back, which is the ideal way to do any research work," says Jojo Offord, headteacher at Barcaldine Primary on the banks of Loch Creran, north of Oban, which has the equivalent of one and a half teachers and one composite class for Primary 1 to 7.
The youngsters get a flavour of the work of archaeologists and try to identify mystery objects - "We were looking for evidence using fragments of stuff from Egypt," says Myfanwy, one of Barcaldine's two Primary 7 pupils.
They use their imaginations to reconstruct broken artefacts: "We had to draw what was missing, then Emma showed us how an artist had done it," says Sarah. They even compose poetry inspired by the exhibits, with a little help from a poet at the museum.
Conference sessions are not isolated events. At planning meetings between the teachers and museum staff - using the same video-conferencing facilities - lessons are designed to mesh with the curriculum. At least two sessions with the children are scheduled for each topic, to give them time to absorb information and talk about what they have seen and heard, as well as to e-mail or fax their thoughts, questions, paintings or poems to the museum.
"It's bringing valuable artefacts into the classroom," says Mrs Offord. "You might say we could do that just as well with the Internet, but you wouldn't get Emma talking to the children. Sometimes I'm sure they feel she's in the classroom with them.
"We went to Edinburgh earlier this year and it was like meeting an old friend: she'd built up such a rapport with them. I think the person-to-person contact is as important as seeing the artefacts."
Another valuable spin-off is the surprising enthusiasm the children have acquired for museums. "I can just imagine their reaction before, if I'd said we were going to a museum," concludes Mrs Offord. "But they couldn't wait to get there. They were so excited. The project had made it meaningful for them and brought it alive."
For more information contact Emma Webb at NMS, tel 0131 247 4267