A landmark week at the Museum

Every year, Fallibroome Academy, a specialist arts college in Macclesfield, organises an Artsweek around a particular theme for its local feeder schools. For the last two years, our colleagues over at the Whitworth Art Gallery have been involved in Artsweek, working with pupils from the network of Cheshire primary schools to explore themes such as global threads (2012) and elements (2013). However, this year, for the first time, the Museum was also involved.


Coral on display in Natures Library

From 11th to 14th February, the Museum and Gallery hosted four different classes from Mottram St Andrews, BollinbrookWhirley primary schools, as they explored the theme of ‘landmarks’. Initially, landmarks did not seem to be the easiest topic to explore in the Museum, and with the closure of the Whitworth for refurbishment, the whole project was looking like quite a challenge. However, after some initial head-scratching and with a little creative joined-up thinking, we soon hatched a plan, based on the notion of ‘landmarks’ as structures. So Artsweek 2014 soon became an exciting joint venture between the Museum, where groups were invited to explore and investigate structures, and the Whitworth, where groups were given the opportunity to build structures in Whitworth Park.

To give the groups a sense of direction during their museum visit, we decided to develop some landmark-themed resources. As I wondered the museum in search of inspiration, I soon realised that once I opened my eyes and took a slightly different perspective, I was actually surrounded by structures, both natural and manmade, of all shapes and sizes. From the intricate net-like calcium carbonate structures of coral (pictured , to the gigantic articulated bones of a sperm whale, hanging above the Living Worlds gallery, the museum is full of natural structures. Indeed, manmade structures are also abundant both in the collection, such as the Japanese armour with its interlocking plates, and the enormous pink granite column, carved by King Ramesses II that sits in the Museum’s entrance, but equally on a larger scale in the form of the beautiful Victorian architecture of the building itself.

To support the groups as they explored the Museum, we developed a ‘structures trail’ and, for the older pupils, a ‘structural challenge’. Both activities encouraged groups to approach objects creatively and from the perspective that, on a particular scale, they all constitute structures. While the trail identified particular items that we invited groups to reconstruct using their own bodies, the challenge encouraged pupils to design a tree-house that met a number of criteria, using the collections as inspiration. These resources will soon be available on our website in the ‘on-gallery resources’ section. While some groups did use these resources, in practice, others chose not to. In spite of this, the resources are, if anything, evidence of the type of creative work that can take place in the museum.

mottram group

Reception class from Mottram St Andrew

Our first visit was from a reception class from Mottram St Andrews. This, it turned out, was the first trip that the class had been on, and for most of the pupils, it was also the first time that they had visited the Museum. Now I will hold my hands up and admit that reception pupils are way out of my comfort zone (as Primary Learning Coordinator, they are also outside of my experience!), so when I learned that the first group to visit for Artsweek would consist of four and five year olds, I had no idea what to expect. When the class arrived, I was delighted to meet such a lively and enthusiastic class, and was relieved to find out how focused and articulate they were. During their visit we ended up ditching the trail and I led a tour around the museum, pointing out some of the highlights (both the living and stuffed animals were a big hit!), of which Stan was probably the most memorable, particularly since the class is currently studying dinosaurs. The sight of a group of reception children coming face to face with Stan the T-rex for the first time is quite something! And after the initial excitement, the group spent some time (a surprising amount of time!) on the gallery sketching the enormous skeleton which, from the point of view of a 4 year old, must have been even more impressive than it is for us fully-grown adults.

While I was not entirely convinced that the pupils had made the link between their museum visit and the theme of landmarks, when we relocated to the park after lunch, it became clear that they had. Steve’s blog post will give you a detailed account of the work that was carried out in the park from the point of view of the Whitworth, but I also want to mention a couple of my own thoughts and observations, from the point of view of the Museum’s work.

Using willow and twigs / branches, the class was invited to build their own structure, and it was only at this point that I realised how much of an impact their museum visit had made. As well as constructing the frame of a huge dinosaur, smaller groups of pupils also started work on structures such as a den and various animals. On the surface, it probably looked a lot like a load of kids (and adults!) playing in the park and building bizarre willow structures. While I’m not denying that the park work was a lot of fun, it was also a lot more than that. By listening in on conversations between pupils as they worked on their structures, and from hearing pupils talk about their landmarks, I was very happy to hear that their museum trip provided much of the inspiration for their willow structures.

After the reception class, the next group to visit was a year 6 class from Bollinbrook. While I have much more experience of working with this age group, and therefore, our resources were perhaps more suitable, I was thrilled to find that, like the reception class, the year 6 group linked their museum visit to their work in the park. Using the previous group’s structures as a starting point, the year 6 class threw themselves into the challenge wholeheartedly. The third day was slightly different in that the year 3 class from Whirley visited the park first, and then came to the museum for the afternoon. While I had been slightly worried about how well this would work in practice, it turned out really well as for this group, their willow structures informed the types of structures that they investigated in the museum. The final group to participate was a year 3 class from Mottram St Andrews. While I was unable to spend much time with the group during their museum trip, I had a quick chat with the teachers over lunch, and was glad to hear how well the trip was fitting in with their current topic of skeletons. The museum, once again, provided a really great opportunity for pupils to observe different types of structures and to gather inspiration in preparation for their afternoon in the park. When I visited the park later in the day, I was thrilled to see how each group had added something new to the original structures, whilst remaining sympathetic to the previous work. The amazing collaborative landmarks that came about from this project are, for me, physical evidence of the benefits of partnership working.


So a couple of thoughts…

  1. Artsweek demonstrated (yet again) how joined up thinking can lead to really exciting projects that make new links between the museum and the gallery, and in this case, the use of the park as an outdoor setting.
  2. A joint visit is entirely feasible! In the past, we have found it very difficult to convince groups to visit the museum and gallery in one day. The fundamental issue has, quite rightly, been the matter of walking down Oxford Road with a group of pupils. This challenge can, however, be overcome and as we demonstrated during Artsweek, simply taking the back route from the Museum to the Park is not only easy and safe, but is also entirely doable!
  3. A chance to work outdoors in the park is the perfect accompaniment to a trip to the museum. These two environments couldn’t be more different, yet they are strangely complimentary when appropriately supported.
  4. Finally, if you are ever running an event and hoping for good weather, Steve Roper is your man! If you cast your mind back, you may remember that mid February was rather wet and windy (understatement:  MEN headline for 14th February was ‘The Great Storm: How winds of 70mph battered Greater Manchester’!). So I admit that I was feeling rather smug about having an actual venue to work in, and slightly sorry for Steve, who didn’t. In spite of the storms, the gale force wind, the torrential rain, and everything else that the week threw at us, Steve Roper only got rained on ONCE! With the exception of the last day when it started spitting as the group left the park, whenever I visited Steve in the park, it was not only dry but was often also glorious sunshine. So based on the events of Artsweek 2014, I can only conclude that Steve Roper has the weather on his side – the man is waterproof! – and in Manchester, that is a very special gift!

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