The National Centre for Citizenship and the Law has pioneered the idea of museums grouping together to form education syndicates as a way of sharing scarce resources

The educators

John Holt, Issue 113/01, p30-34, 02.01.2013
How is museum education work being affected by budget cuts and changes to the curriculum? John Holt talks to those involved to find out
What’s the connection between Alan Turing’s pursuit of Fibonacci numbers in sunflowers, tempting teenagers away from a possible life of crime and ruminating on the germ count of your average toilet seat?

They’re all topics tackled by the all-encompassing world of museum education, that very flexible learning curve aimed at bringing collections and curricula to life via school visits and outreach projects, online resources and gallery activities for all ages.

But this mission to explain is coming under increasing pressure from funding cuts, changes to school structures and examinations, and a feeling within some sections of the heritage sector that education is not a number-one priority when times are hard. Educators appear to be increasingly in the firing line as museum professionals are made redundant.

“If you have to show people the door, you’re going to want to keep the curator who knows where things are and where they came from,” says Nick Winterbotham, a former teacher who is now chairman of the Group for Education in Museums (GEM).

“Cutting education personnel means museums end up effectively losing that one professional point of contact they had with their audiences,” Winterbotham says. “Those roles could be lost for years as people lose the habit of using museums and galleries as extensions of the classroom or adult education.

“Directors hate losing those people but sometimes they have to be sacrificed to really demonstrate that the service is under pressure, that cuts really hurt.”

Of GEM’s 2,000-strong membership, some 15%-20% have recently switched to freelance status after losing their jobs in locally and nationally funded public institutions, according to Winterbotham.

In these do-more-with-less times, schools and museums could help each other by gaining a firmer understanding of their respective strengths and weaknesses, aims and objectives.

EBacc worries

The relationship between museums and schools cooled, says Winterbotham, as history and art were downgraded as part of changes to the national curriculum. Also, the bond between the two often relies on the hard work of a few individuals.

There is some anecdotal evidence that school visits to museums are starting to fall, but it is difficult to tell whether this is because of museum redundancies, the downgrading of certain subjects in the national curriculum or more museums charging schools for visits. It’s probably a combination of all of these.

That sense of museum education being devalued within the sector while being lauded by the government’s 2012 Henley Review of Cultural Education creates “an interesting tension”, says Sam Cairns, co-manager of the Cultural Learning Alliance, which promotes cultural learning for young people.

Similarly, the Heritage Lottery Fund is concerned that grant-funded museums are choosing not to maintain learning programmes, she adds.

“These are worrying trends, particularly with another round of cuts expected in the spring,” says Cairns, who is anxious about the long-term effects of the exclusion of arts subjects from the new English baccalaureate (EBacc) qualification.

“We’re hearing schools are putting more time and resources into the provision of the EBacc subjects to the detriment of others. History is in the EBacc but there’s a risk that the subjects that support it in terms of understanding and creative learning won’t be.”

Proactive opportunities

Museums need to be proactive in the education arena during difficult times, says Tim Desmond, chief executive of the Galleries of Justice and National Centre for Citizenship and the Law (NCCL) in Nottingham.

“In the past, schools have come to us, but now we have to think more carefully about what we can offer,” Desmond says. “For example, we have a building with an actual courtroom, jail and police station on site and we hold the HM Prison Service collection.

“We’re trying to get more mileage out of all that. Schools might be quite happy to get on a train and go down to London but we have to persuade them we can give them more for their time and money.”

The rise of academies also presents opportunities for museums to create closer relationships with schools that suddenly have more choice over how they meet the needs of the curriculum, adds Desmond.

Back in 2008, Desmond began planning what he calls education syndicates, groups of specialist museums and cultural organisations that pool their resources – expertise, finance and marketing – to offer a better service to schools and communities.

“It’s easier and more cost-effective, for example, for the NCCL to deliver an education programme at the Royal Courts of Justice and the Supreme Court than it would be for them to set up their own learning team,” says Desmond, who is looking to expand the team that develops services for others.

In a project with the Sessions House in Northampton, the NCCL is creating a partnership that will see legal professionals coming in to work with children.

“We give schools strong messages about the law, their responsibilities and creating a fairer society. One is that if you commit a crime as a teenager, it might prevent you travelling to the US. “This model is relying less on funding and it’s all about achieving sustainability, a difficult task for museums who do not charge.”

An experiment to finish Alan Turing’s theory about the Fibonacci sequence in sunflower seed heads involved people in “the most powerful museum learning possible, through engagement and experience,” according to Jean Franczyk, director of the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.

“The team thought we might get around 3,000 people growing sunflowers but the number topped 12,000 in 13 countries, with many providing evidence through photographs and video diaries,” said Franczyk of the experiment mounted as part of the city’s Science Festival (27 October-4 November).

Franczyk was formerly director of learning at the Science Museum in London and during her time there she was a keen advocate of how audience reaction can shape an institution’s thinking, even down to the basic terminology.

Educational routes

“The key words people use in their responses to us tend to be things like ‘information’, ‘experience’ and ‘activity’. Usually the least popular is ‘education’, probably because of negative associations with schooldays. We do ourselves a disservice if we try to define ourselves in such a narrow way; we should be about promoting curiosity and questioning.”

St Fagans open-air museum on the outskirts of Cardiff has a range of historical buildings and galleries, which provide it with a diverse staff. One of them has local youngsters who live in deprived areas of the city and are deemed at risk or excluded from school working on building restoration projects.

“It’s a different environment and provides scope for people who don’t like the more formal learning route; they can study part of the curriculum here,” says Nia Williams, learning manager.

St Fagans was recently awarded £11.5m from the HLF to develop a new gallery and learning activity buildings along with improved visitor facilities.

“We’re interested in becoming a more participatory museum where visitors can come to respond to the content and start debates in a fantastic learning space,” says Williams, who fears cuts in St Fagans’ Welsh Assembly funding.

The museum has also received funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation as part of the Our Museum scheme to pay for a group of community partners to advise it on providing an even better lifelong learning experience.

Education work at the Manchester Museum and the Whitworth Art Gallery, both part of the University of Manchester, is being driven by the desire to improve engagement with local communities of all ages.

“Our funding and support from the university forms a key part of the university-wide commitment to social responsibility,” says head of learning and engagement Esme Ward.

The museum and gallery has recently secured major partner museum funding from Arts Council England but nothing is taken for granted in uncertain times and it’s how you respond to cuts that really counts, Ward says.

The learning and engagement team, alongside a range of other teams/services, at the Whitworth and Manchester Museum joined forces two years ago in what Ward describes as “a kind of pre-emptive strike” in order to maximise the resources of both institutions.

Through talking with fellow educators, Ward knows that museums are not alone in feeling a very painful pinch. “In Manchester, the early year’s sector has been badly hit, with children’s services going from 400 staff to around 15. Against that context, partnerships become very important.”

Funding from the Baring Foundation, for example, has paid for a coordinator to bring all of the city’s cultural organisations together to create programmes for older people.

A mobile collections project visits residential homes, and close links forged with carers means that the museum and gallery saves valuable organisational time and money.

In addition, as part of their partnership work with the city council and cultural organisations across the city, some 90 older “cultural champions” have been taken on to act as advocates for the institutions in their own communities, Ward adds.

And, at the opposite end of the age scale, the Whitworth is working on arts-based programmes for families, new parents and babies by collaborating with health visitors and the large maternity hospital across the road.

Scientists in the snug

If an audience can’t come to you, then museums should go the extra mile to go to them. This solution is epitomised by the Birmingham branch of Café Scientifique, the worldwide movement that encourages people to meet socially to talk about science.

“We meet in a pub,” says organiser Kenny Webster, learning and operations manager of Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum.

“The sessions are free so we have to think of the business side; they let us have a pleasant function room in return for our custom.”

This is participatory, lifelong learning in its purest form; real-world experts from local universities are invited to come and talk informally to audiences of eager amateurs without the aid of a safety net, and certainly no PowerPoint presentations.

“There’s no them-and-us atmosphere like you see in laboratories or lecture rooms. The scientists say it’s scary at first but becomes very liberating once the discussions start in earnest,” says Webster, who reports that sessions have a feverish social media following.

Recent deliberations have included a microbiologist looking at our obsession with cleanliness through “but is it as dirty as a toilet seat?”, a sleep consultant exploring “sex, violence and driving in your slumber” and – perhaps the one that provoked the deepest debate – “what is time?”

“A lot of people find themselves examining their own perceptions,” Webster says.

“An evening on complementary medicine got a little heated and we had to remind some people that we weren’t there to mock individuals whose beliefs we don’t follow. The first rule of Café Scientifique is show respect.”

John Holt is a freelance journalist