The last post

This will be my final message on the learning blog because after five years as Head of Learning & Interpretation I’m moving on at the end of this week to a new role as Head of Learning & Access at Imperial War Museum North. It’s going to be very different but I’m looking forward to new challenges. I know they say change is as good as a rest but I doubt I’ll be able to put my feet up!

Working in the Manchester Museum has been a fantastic adventure and I’ve learned a huge amount from colleagues at all levels in the organisation. I’ve seen the team grow and develop into a highly professional group of creative collaborators. The programme has evolved to meet the changing needs of learners and the schools and colleges that support them. Learning has become embedded in the thinking and practice of colleagues in all areas of museum work and we have built lasting relationships with teachers and learners, from under-5s to postgraduate students.

I’m proud to have been part of all that and I’m sure that the Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery will continue to play a key role as a gateway to the university and a focus for community engagement. I’m going to be following the learning blog with interest – maybe I’ll even post a comment or two.

I wish all my colleagues the very best of luck with whatever the future brings. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege working with you.


A little ray of sunshine

However much you love your work, there are times when you need a boost and I received one last week from one of our younger visitors. It made my day so I decided to share it with you.

Dear Manchester Museum, I am 9 years old. I have visited the museum many times and I have found it interesting and I’ve learned lots from it. This is a poem I wrote which was inspired by the Egyptian exhibition.

Sleeping Still

Entering the dark, dim lit hall,

Running to the precious bodies in the clear, glass cases.

Looking at them, brown like shrivelled apples.

Walking, talking people is what they used to be.

Strolling on Egyptian sands, thinking, when they died they would live on.

Here they are.

It is raining and they are lying still in Manchester Museum.

By Matilda

Thank you for making your museum wonderful.

From Matilda Houston-Brown

Museums never change, or do they?

Many people are put off museums because they seem to be static places full of dusty animals and obsolete objects. Others value the sense of continuity in a rapidly changing world – families often share the experience of galleries from one generation to the next.

Image, the original Manchester Museum and University building, designed by Alfred Waterhouse

Image, the new entrance to the Manchester Museum, opened in 2003

Behind the scenes however, museums are a bit like the proverbial swan – legs frantically paddling beneath the unruffled feathers. Museums are always looking for ways to update and enliven their displays, to keep them relevant and interesting to today’s visitors. The challenge is always how to introduce new ideas and methods of interpretation without losing the best of the old, and the bigger the project, the greater the challenge.

The museum is currently facing two huge challenges: in the next couple of years we will be clearing and redisplaying Animal Life 1 (also known as the Mammals Gallery) as well as Mediterranean Archaeology and our two Egypt galleries.

Living Planet will tackle issues that are in the news and on the school curriculum such as habitat loss, extinction and climate change with displays that are more interesting, exciting and thought-provoking. We will be revealing the original architecture and including even more stuffed animals – not just mammals. Particular favourites such as the Sperm Whale skeleton, Polar Bear and Tiger will certainly be there.

Image, the current Animal Life 1 gallery (also known as the 'Mammals gallery')

In the new ‘Ancient Worlds’ galleries you’ll be able to learn how archaeology has developed and what it means to us today, explore fascinating cultures from the distant past through the objects and writings they left behind or simply enjoy browsing hundreds of beautiful artefacts. Through the new displays you’ll encounter a whole range of people with expert knowledge and personal stories to tell. Some of them lived long ago but others are working in archaeology today.

Image, the Egypt gallery in 1912

Image, the Egypt After Life Gallery in 2010

We know these projects are going to test the museum’s capabilities and the patience of our visitors. There will be some disruption but we will do our best to maintain the highest quality experience for everyone. We’ll be adapting our programmes and putting procedures in place to help people find their way around the closed off areas.

Because Ancient Egypt is such a popular subject, especially for schools, we’re going to be developing a special temporary exhibition that will run from autumn 2011 for a year while the main galleries are closed.

As President Kennedy said in the 1960s: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The scale is slightly different but change is always challenging. Like JFK we believe that the results will be worth it!

Cheese or pickle?

Image, John Rylands Library on Deansgate

What do the Manchester Museum, Whitworth Art Gallery, Contact Theatre, Martin Harris Centre for Music & Drama, John Rylands Library, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, Tabley House and Jodrell Bank Observatory have in common?

Many people aren’t aware that together they make up the ‘cultural assets’ of the University of Manchester. Teachers are often surprised when we tell them that the Museum belongs to the University – many people assume that the City Council runs it. The same applies to the Whitworth, but being part of the University does make a difference. One key advantage is that University status gives us the freedom to be bold and innovative, to challenge orthodoxies and experiment with new practice through research and development.

Image, The Whitworth Art Gallery

In recent weeks learning staff at the Museum and the Whitworth have been meeting to talk about ways of working more collaboratively. Like cheese and pickle, the two venues each have their own distinctive ‘flavour’ but also go really well together. The Whitworth tends to have a quieter, more reflective atmosphere, while Museum exploration is livelier and louder, which means a taste of each can provide a rich and rounded experience. The two venues have a very similar philosophical and practical approach to learning, which makes coordination smooth and stress-free.  A joint visit on a single day is certainly feasible – the venues are only a 15 minute walk away from each other on the same side of Oxford Road – or two separate trips can form part of a longer scheme of work or project.

It’s an exciting time for both venues: the Whitworth is planning a major extension and redevelopment of the building and the Museum is working on a multi-million pound update of two of its most popular displays – Animal Life and Archaeology & ancient Egypt. With new facilities, more collections on display and fresh approaches to interpretation, together the University’s museum and art gallery are much greater than the sum of their parts. That’s why we’re going to be linking up online and creating a joint learning blog. You’ll be able to keep up to date with what’s happening at both venues and contribute your own ideas. Do you like cheese, pickle or both?

No room at the inn?

Image, Students in our LifeLab

There’s a fantastic buzz in the museum’s galleries during term time. Children and young people of all ages and abilities are busy exploring the displays and developing their skills of inquiry and analysis. School groups are carefully coordinated by the Learning Team to ensure the best possible experience for every child.

The timetable is organised to provide each group with enough room for an enjoyable and meaningful visit. A quick glance at the website will tell you that we offer guided visits and workshops on a wide range of subjects for the whole age range, from Early Years to post-16. To be fair to everyone this inevitably means that spaces and time slots have to be rationed. We recommend that teachers plan as far ahead as possible and book the visit early to avoid disappointment but, like any other popular service or facility, we sometimes find ourselves in the situation where we can’t offer the dates and times when people would like to book a visit to the museum. We hate to turn schools away but when the timetable is full adding more groups would compromise the quality of experience for everyone.

Image, Students being taught on the Pre-historic Life Gallery

So what’s a teacher to do when the museum says it’s full? There is an answer. Over the past six or seven years museums and galleries around the country have been boosting the quality of the service to schools with the help of Renaissance in the Regions, a government-funded programme of staff training, collections development and improvements to facilities.

The Manchester Museum is part of the ‘Northwest Hub’ – a group of institutions dedicated to sharing good practice and professional development. The region’s museums and galleries are tuned in to the changing curriculum and develop programmes in partnership with teachers and pupils. Of course each museum or gallery has different collections and teachers want their students to see particular objects – you wouldn’t expect to study the ancient Egyptians in a science museum or vice versa (although cross-disciplinary learning is exactly where museums and galleries excel so I wouldn’t discount the idea!). One result of Renaissance in the Regions is that we can now consistently offer high quality alternatives for learning in most subject areas across the wider group of museums and galleries. Teachers looking for a relevant, engaging and productive cultural experience now have a better choice than ever, which is why we are happy to recommend our colleagues in other venues if we are unable to accommodate a group at The Manchester Museum.

Who cares about factual accuracy?

I’ve just been asked by (an on-line journal about all things Ancient World) about whether as a museum educator I think there is value in ‘edutainment’, (also see this recent Independent article) with publishers and movie producers playing fast and loose with the facts, or whether traditional and more strait-laced methods are better.

Image, An archive image of The Manchester Museum. Is traditional always best?

As a long-standing advocate of ‘stealth learning’ I’m all in favour of anything that stimulates people’s interest in a subject. I’ve lost count of the number of times young museum visitors have said, when asked what they’ve learned, that they were too busy enjoying themselves.

It’s true that new myths are created when artistic licence and factual accuracy come to blows but in my experience even young children understand that there is a difference between storytelling and reportage. They enjoy the thrill of mummies coming back to life while being completely aware that it doesn’t happen.

The real problem is in the subtle anomalies and inaccuracies that are harder to spot. Through our learning programme we encourage learners to be critical of all sources, including the museum and their teachers, when they are researching a subject. The more discriminating they are the less worrying ‘edutainment’ becomes. And finally… as we all know truth is often stranger and more fascinating than fiction so maybe it’s up to us to beat the dream weavers at their own game!

Education sessions cancelled – that’s snow business!

Image, Oxford Road in the snow, courtesy of Estelle Idiens

Like everyone else, we’ve been affected by the Arctic weather this week – many museum staff have been unable to get to work which means we had to close early on Monday and Tuesday.

On Wednesday 6th January 2010 all University staff apart from people providing emergency cover were told to stay at home.

In view of all this we’ve reluctantly had to cancel all education bookings this week and have tried to contact all the schools and colleges.

If you were hoping to visit this week we apologise for any disappointment or inconvenience and will do our best to reschedule the trips.

We will be updating this page as new information becomes available.  You can also check for updates on the main University of Manchester homepage by clicking here.  For information on travel in the Greater Manchester area you can visit the GMPTE website using this link.

UPDATE – You can call the Education Bookings Coordinator, Nora, on 0161 275 2630 as we are now back in the office if you have any questions and/or concerns about your forthcoming visit

Visit from The Edina Trust

Recently, we were delighted to welcome two representatives from one of the organisations that fund our work. The Edina Trust is a charity originally set up by Sir Edwin Southern, a molecular biologist with an interest in the teaching and learning of science.

Image, Charles Darwin:evolution of a scientist exhibition. Photography Steve Devine, Illustrations Chrissie Morgan

It isn’t often that funders take such a hands-on interest so it was a great opportunity to show how the money is being spent.

Emma Wilmore and Tanya Gujral arrived at mid-day for an afternoon at the Museum with Head of Development, Stephen Walsh.

After an introductory chat with Louise (Curator of Learning, Secondary & Post-16, who was in the middle of Frog Day) they met Nick (the Director) and then went on a tour of Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist with Head of Natural Environments, Henry McGhie. Henry also took Emma and Tanya to see our new(ish) Nature Discovery gallery for young children and families and talked to them about our exciting plans to refurbish the mammals gallery.

The visitors went on to the Museum’s ‘life lab’, where pupils gain hands-on experience of real science demonstrated by PhD students from the University’s Faculty of Life Sciences, before concluding their tour in another of our Darwin delights: In Darwin’s Footsteps – a photographic exhibition by Ben Hall inspired by the great scientist’s voyage on HMS Beagle.

Image, Charles Darwin: evolution of a scientist exhibition. Photography Steve Devine, Illustrations Chrissie Morgan

So were Emma and Tanya happy with what they saw? Well, after they returned to Oxford we received the following e-mail from Tanya:

“I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for showing Emma and me around Manchester Museum on Tuesday; we were so impressed by the Darwin exhibition and the success of the schools’ programme so far.”

Our thanks to Emma and Tanya for taking the time out of their busy schedules to visit us at the Museum, and to The Edina Trust for its very generous support in helping to make the Darwin Festival’s learning programme possible.

Life on the edge

Although museum and gallery educators often complain about the peripheral place of learning in their institutions and bemoan the ‘bolt on’ approach, in recent years learning has started to become more prominent strategically and to gain greater influence, with educators involved at all levels in planning, policy making and operational activity. I’m one of a growing number of educators in senior management but I came across something that made me wonder (at the risk of shooting myself in the foot) whether ‘museum central’ might not be the best place for learning to live.

Image, Learning in the Museum?

Image, Learning in the Museum?

Whilst working on the Museum’s interpretation strategy, I’ve been reading a really useful U.S. publication – the Journal of Museum Education – that was dedicated to ‘Institution-wide Interpretive Planning’ (Transformation and Interpretation: What is the Museum Educator’s Role? in Institution Wide Interpretive Planning, Journal of Museum Education, 33, (3), Fall 2008, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, USA).

In this edition I found an article about the educator’s role in “transformation and interpretation”. Czajkowski and Hill acknowledge that learning is often physically and psychologically isolated from what is traditionally defined as the ‘core function’ of a museum, but they question the desire to move education in from the periphery. They argue that the margin is where change happens: it’s the place where audiences and objects interact. Educators understand the museum from outside in, and are ideally placed to act as agents of transformation, mediating negotiations between individuals and institutions.

In support of their proposition, Czajkowski and Hill cite the work of black feminist theorist, bell hooks (no that’s not a typo – she doesn’t capitalise her name). Applying locative politics, hooks argues that the margin is the strongest position from which to “challenge dominance and deconstruct hierarchical power”. This reminded me of the old saying that you should be careful what you wish for. If we embed education in the establishment in a search for security do we risk losing something much more valuable? Perhaps, instead of striving to belong, educators should celebrate life on the edge.

The power of cultural learning

Image, Visitors to our new Manchester Gallery

Image, Visitors to our new Manchester Gallery

What do Philip Pullman, Dame Judi Dench, Antony Gormley and Doreen (aged 9) have in common?

They all “get it”: the power of cultural learning, that is. They are all quoted in the report recently published by the Culture and Learning Consortium, after lengthy consultation both within the arts sector and with its users and stakeholders  What is clear from the report is that the people consulted are in no doubt that cultural learning is essential for a healthy society and should be prioritised along with other basic education. The report pulls no punches. It speaks of cultural learning as “oxygen, life-enhancing and life-changing”. It warns of the consequences of cultural deprivation and, in these uncertain economic times, stresses the urgency of action to preserve the progress that has been made towards universal cultural entitlement.

 The report exhorts government to ring-fence or protect investment in cultural learning. It urges funding bodies to encourage collaboration across sectors and reward quality rather than quantity. Policy makers are challenged to work with providers to develop collective standards, gather robust evidence and disseminate good practice. Cultural learning should become a core element in both initial teacher training and courses for arts professionals. Schools should have cultural learning ‘champions’ responsible for awareness-raising and advocacy: they could be teachers, parents, governors or young people. Cultural learning should be integrated into national, regional and local strategies, particularly for children and young people, and embedded in the forward planning of cultural organisations.

Image, Children on an Early Years Trip to The Manchester Museum

Image, Children on an Early Years Trip to The Manchester Museum

Working in museums, we witness the transformative and far-reaching effects of cultural learning every day, but many of our compatriots, including politicians and other decision makers have not had that privilege. But there is hope. The power of cultural learning is a renewable resource: sharing the experience creates converts. The energy invested pays huge dividends but they are subtle, long-term and not easily identified. If we could build a ‘national grid’ for advocacy, harnessing the passion and creativity generated by cultural learning, we could light up the lives of the whole country.