Educational alliances and museums

Wikipedia explains that the origin of the word museum derives from the Greek muses, denoting a building set apart for …
Greg Coyne
Wikipedia explains that the origin of the word museum derives from the Greek muses, denoting a building set apart for study and the arts.

My organisation, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), has a passion for “study and the arts” and is one of the UK’s largest providers of adult education.
The WEA’s vision is: “A different world, more equal, democratic and just.” We strive to use adult education to challenge and inspire individuals and communities to achieve this vision. This is a forward-looking vision but education must necessarily draw on what is and what has been in order to think about what may be.

Museums are the institutions with resources that describe and analyse what is and what has been. In linking with adult education they become prime motivators in helping adults, and, through them, to conceptualise, discuss and plan what might be. Together we can pull the future out of the stuff of the past and the present.

We are seeking to provide education that is attractive to ordinary people (for example, the People’s History Museum, Manchester), the man and woman on the Clapham omnibus (the London Transport Museum).

Our challenge is to use these interests to kindle an intellectual curiosity about our world and how it can be changed. In that task museums often are our greatest resource. We want education that changes things, not maintains the status quo.

Our task is to start from where people are. Nearly 70,000 individuals attend WEA courses in England every year. They want to follow passions, develop skills, find new interests, progress at work, help families, enhance communities, improve their health or mind.

They seek companionship and, for a short time, a release from the everyday pressures, while they think, talk and express themselves about something different. They don’t generally come to the WEA looking to change the world.

But through the WEA they meet our vision and mission. We develop our students’ critical engagement with a subject through active learning. Our courses build each student’s research skills from simple discovery exercises to complex research assignments.

We stretch students to understand broader contexts, using themes such as inequality in our art courses or exploring the cultural significances of cakes in our cake-decorating courses, or discussing whether the flower economy is more important than the food economy in our flower-arranging classes.

The aim is to spark debate and stretch peoples’ understanding. We encourage each class to use this new knowledge to inspire a class activity doing something socially purposeful, practical learning that consolidates knowledge and changes their world for the better.

Our allies in this endeavour are museums. I have indicated here how we might use a few named museums. But this is a reciprocal relationship. WEA shares your passion in using the museum collections, expertise, buildings and resources to foster understanding, knowledge and engagement.

WEA could partner museums running coordinated education at the same time that relevant collections are on display. We bring new and different visitors. We could jointly support volunteering, employability, research and citizenship skills. Working together opens the possibility of furthering a creative social agenda.

Greg Coyne is an education director at the WEA. He is speaking at a session on adult education at the Museums Association conference in Liverpool (11-12 November)

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