‘Learn from outside sector’

Education programmes need to be bolder and the sector needs to look beyond the usual suspects for new collaborations in order to be more socially impactful. By Caroline Parry
Caroline Parry
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Museum learning and education programmes need to become bolder, and the sector needs to look beyond its borders for new partners and ways of working, to increase the impact of museums on social issues.

These issues, plus the need for co-creation and collaboration, were among the topics discussed by museum educators and learning practitioners at the Group for Education in Museums (Gem) Conference in September.

Rachel Tranter, the director of Gem, says many of the conference speakers focused on the need for different ways of working, and the need to combat social inequality.

“There is still a class divide when it comes to museums,” she says. “It is not about cost, as we know people are willing to pay for other attractions, or time, but about feeling welcome and that museums are relevant to them.”

Tranter says there is advocacy work to be done within the sector about the true scope of museum learning and education programmes.
“We haven’t always had a strong advocacy role, so we haven’t been at the table,” she adds. “It really shows in the Mendoza Report, which looks at only formal education and doesn’t talk about health and wellbeing.”

In a rut

Dhikshana Pering, the learning officer for young people at the London Transport Museum and a Museums Association board member, believes museum learning has been stuck in a rut in recent years.

“It has been going round in circles,” she says. “We need to look outside of our sector. In theatres, for example, they have good learning programmes that are not so constrained by the curriculum. It will be hard to become braver but once we do it, it will become the way we work.”

Museums should also be looking beyond the creative sector, according to Pering. “It is about building sustainable partnerships that link people to the museum,” she says. These include youth services, care homes and third-sector organisations such as charities.

Museum learning still faces a challenge when it comes to being seen as a core part of the work of museums, says David Anderson, the director general of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), and the author of the 1997 landmark report on museums and learning, A Common Wealth.

“Far too many essential education posts are dependent on external funding, and far too many museums have responded to budget reductions by making disproportionate cuts to the numbers of learning specialists they employ,” he says.

“Despite claims that the museum sector in the UK has responded to the challenges of the 21st century by bringing learning into the core of its work, the evidence clearly suggests otherwise.”

Short-term view

With many roles being combined or scrapped in response to budget cuts, there are now lots of short-term contracts and freelance workers in museum learning. Funders also often support only short-term projects.

Susan Raikes, the director of learning at the Science Museum Group, which last month launched an Academy for Informal Science Engagement in partnership with support from energy firm BP, believes the short-term nature of some projects should not be perceived as a negative.

“Relationships can go off on different trajectories and they will have peaks and troughs of activity,” she says.

Raikes thinks there is much to be positive about in museum learning. “Museum educators are a humble bunch and they are already good at sharing and collaborating,” she says. “We should celebrate that there is amazing work being done.

“There are always new opportunities to learn from other organisations. We are getting better at developing new types of partnership, and our horizons are broadening.”

A Common Wealth – a turning point in museum education

A Common Wealth: Museums in the Learning Age was published in 1997, with a second edition produced two years later. The reports, both commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, were written by David Anderson, now the director general of Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales), who at the time was the head of education at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

A Common Wealth was the first comprehensive report to examine the educational role of museums in full. While acknowledging that UK museums have always been regarded as educational institutions, it called for more coordination at all levels, so the sector could have more impact on formal and informal learning.
The reports aimed to define museums’ educational role and set targets for developing their learning provision. The advice was aimed at all sizes of museum, and focused on defining a vision for their development, while highlighting examples of best practice.

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