Museum schools

Alistair Brown, 13.07.2016
Full-time learning in a museum environment
I was in Swansea a couple of weeks ago just before all the political drama of the past few weeks kicked off. And in what already seems like a simpler time, I caught a glimpse of a project that I hope represents the future for many museums.

The project, My Primary School is at the Museum, is under the creative direction of architect Wendy James, whose professional involvement in designing schools and museums has driven an interest in museum learning.

Her insight is based on a simple idea: that children often do better in the creative learning environment of a museum that they do in the regimented learning environment of a typical school. There’s nothing radical about this observation – it’s the same logic that inspires thousands of school trips to museums every year.

But Wendy has taken the idea further than others. Building on the idea of ‘museum schools’ – a well-established movement in the US – she wants schoolchildren in the UK to be given the opportunity to learn full-time in a museum environment.

Now this really is radical. The current pilot project, being run with the support of Kings College London, has been testing out whether you can get schoolchildren into museums for sustained periods of time, and if it has any additional impact when compared with classroom learning.

At Arbeia Roman Fort in Newcastle, Tate Liverpool and the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, whole classes of primary school children aged between four and 10 have decamped from their classrooms into their local museums for several weeks at a time.

I saw just how successful this project has been when I visited Swansea. The children were keen, excited, alert... and dressed as pirates, along with many of their parents, who were attending an open afternoon.

The children’s teacher told me about her initial scepticism about the project: How would they manage with transport, with school meals, with the curriculum, and with parents? Yet these practicalities had been overcome, and she was a convert to the cause.

The children’s attention, memory and learning had improved massively. Behaviour and attendance were up. The only concerns for museum and school alike were how to keep the project going next year, and how to ensure that more children have the opportunity to benefit from it.

It’s not hard to imagine a world in which it’s normal for children to spend a week or more at the museum as part of their education. It will take time for the research and the supporting analysis to be published, and to keep convincing others that this idea works. But, surrounded by enthusiastic pirates at the National Waterfront Museum, it was clear that this is a radical idea with a real future.


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27.07.2016, 14:08
I am looking forward to reading the findings of this project. It does not seems surprising that there has already been such positive results, as it is an opportunity for the children connect their classroom learning with 'real-world' experience. There does seem to be a need for children to apply the skills they gain in school to other environments in order for those skills to develop, and it makes learning fun.

It is a common complaint from children and teenagers that they struggle to connect what they learn in school to developing the skills they need for the future. I think this could be a great way to enhance the skills needed for learning, and inspire children to keep learning.