Lessons to be learned - Museums Association

Lessons to be learned

What will be the long-term impact of the pandemic on museum education?
Participants at a Crafts Council workshop show the value of hands-on activities Photo by Iona Woolf

As the UK emerges on what is hopefully the other side of the pandemic, museum educators are thinking about what they have learned from the past year and what the enormous changes brought about by Covid might mean for the future. Although many challenges lie ahead, the coming months and years could also bring significant opportunities for museum learning and engagement.

The potential for museums to inspire children again after the monotony of lockdown is huge, says Rachel Tranter, the head of the Group for Education in Museums (GEM). “It’s been so dull – this is such a massive opportunity for museums to make learning fun and exciting, and to really emphasise the benefit of hands-on learning.”

Looking ahead, museums will need to consider how the pivot to digital during lockdown will play out as schools return to learning outside the classroom. Virtual learning and digital outreach are here to stay, says Tranter, but education teams will have to work out how to hold blended learning and onsite visits at the same time, and how to divide their resources to meet these needs. They will also have to ensure the services they provide are adapted to teachers’ new requirements.

Education teams are thinking about how to accommodate blended learning and on-site visits Courtesy Historic Environment Scotland

“Schools have transformed how they’re working and museums need to step up to that,” says Tranter. Ensuring spaces are Covid secure is another challenge. Although some museums have welcomed pupils back, many are still working out how to do so safely, and are waiting until the next school year begins to relaunch their onsite learning programmes. Tranter advises educators to consult the Space for Learning’s Covid Guidance, which is regularly updated.

As a result of Covid, many schools are placing an even greater emphasis on wellbeing than on the curriculum catch-up. The pandemic has taken a huge toll on children’s mental health and education teams must consider how they can provide support in this area.


“Some museums think wellbeing will be integral to learning sessions,” says Tranter. “They are thinking about how to incorporate it into everything they do.”

Funders must also consider how they can help museums rise to these challenges. “All of this takes more resources – everyone should have that capability,” says Tranter.

Hard hit

This is not the case at present.  Already depleted after years of funding cuts, museum education teams have been hard hit by the pandemic. Many educators were employed on short-term contracts and let go with little notice, while there have also been a lot of redundancies.

Other education staff have been furloughed and feel they have missed out on the new skills and knowledge acquired by colleagues who continued working. Care will need to be taken to ensure all workers feel engaged and up to speed as life returns to normal, says Tranter.

But this may prove challenging, as education provision in museums has become increasingly patchy over the past few years, says Nick Winterbotham, a heritage learning consultant and the former head of GEM.


“I never thought the 1980s and 1990s would be the high point in museum learning but that’s where we are,” he says. In England, this decline has been exacerbated by the introduction of the national curriculum in 2013, focusing heavily on subject-based rote learning rather than skills development. This has been detrimental to the kind of experiential learning that museums excel in, meaning education has fallen down the priority list in some venues.

Many museums are still working out how they will welcome schoolchildren back safely
UK-wide impact

Change could be afoot, however, as next year, the Welsh government will launch a national curriculum that will transform the landscape of learning in the nation – and could have an influence across the UK.

The new curriculum refocuses attention on skills, removing key stages and emphasising a learning continuum (see box).

Museums are ideally placed to meet these priorities, says Hannah Sweetapple, the learning and engagement officer at the Egypt Centre in Swansea.


“It’s the biggest change to the curriculum since devolution,” she says. A significant development is that individual schools will have the freedom to design their own curriculum in collaboration with local stakeholders.

“All of the curriculum is going to be decided at school level, which opens the door to museums,” says Sweetapple. “We’ll be able to use parts of our collection in ways it’s never been used. It will be an incredible chance to showcase ourselves, if we do this right.”

It’s a tantalising opportunity but it also means museums in Wales will have to seize the initiative to ensure they are involved.

"All of the curriculum is going to be decided at school level and that opens the door to museums"
Hannah Sweetapple

“My job will be to go around the streets convincing teachers to choose ancient Egypt as a subject,” says Sweetapple. “Teachers have had an incredibly difficult time and we’ve got to make engaging with the Egypt Centre as easy as possible.”

It will be vital to ensure museums of all types and sizes are able to tap into the new curriculum. Museum sector bodies are lobbying the Welsh government for funding to research what teachers are looking for and to train museums to meet the needs of the curriculum.

“Museums without learning specialists will find it harder – we’ve got to make sure a small, local museum is as informed and confident as the nationals,” says Sweetapple, who is part of GEM Cymru’s new curriculum group, which is working to ensure the museum sector is ready for the changes. “It’s exciting to think of creative new ways of doing things,” she says. “The old world is gone.”

The Group for Education in Museums and Engage will run two In Practice sessions at this year’s Museums Association Conference (8-10 November)

A new curriculum for Wales

The aim of the new curriculum for Wales is for each school to develop its own curriculum.

At its heart are four purposes that are the starting point and aspiration for every child and young person. The four
purposes are:

  • Ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives.
  • Enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play
    a full part in life and work.
  • Ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world.
  • Healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

In developing their vision for the curriculum, schools and practitioners should consider what the four purposes mean for their learners and how the curriculum will support their learners to realise them.

Their vision – and the four purposes more broadly – should then guide the process of curriculum and assessment design. This will include developing their approach to curriculum design based on decisions across the whole school.

The four purposes are also underpinned by integral skills, which should be developed within a wide range of learning and teaching.

At the heart of these skills is the importance of learners recognising, using and creating different types of value. In this context, value means worth and importance in a range contexts, including financial, cultural, social and learning.

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