Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The BIG Event! Trainees share their experience of helping plan the event and running object handling - Rachel McLaughlin & Jenny Hulmes

Rachel (Joint Museums) shares her experiences of the event

From the 23rd to the 25th of July, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History , the Pitt Rivers Museum and The Museum of the History of Science  hosted the BIG event 2014. BIG are the British Interactive Group - a network for educators and communicators of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). The event is for skill sharing and peer learning as well as a chance to catch up with other people in the sector. 

I helped set up the first session – the BIG mingle. This was an icebreaker for the attendees to explore the Pitt Rivers and the Museum of Natural History, to meet each other and see the range of objects which the museums hold. We used objects from the Joint Museums and the Museum of Natural History handling collections which represented the three host museums.

Part of the Joint Museums Handling Collection

The mingle involved 39 objects on 13 tables around the 2 museums. The BIG attendees visited some of these areas and “collected” objects to use in a hypothetical education session. At the end of the event, a winner of the best session idea was chosen, and they won a cuddly mammoth!

To set up the mingle, the 39 objects were researched and photographed by Aisling (the OUMNH trainee) and me. There was a very wide range of objects, from Victorian medical instruments to fossils and a 3000 year old Egyptian carving. Researching these objects was very interesting and learning how to take a recognisable photo of them drew a lot on what I learnt in my archaeology degree. It was also great fun to get up close to a lot of objects in a short space of time.

My personal highlights were the stereoscopic image viewer and the jar of shellac from the floor of the great exhibition in the crystal palace.

Shellac from the floor of the Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace

Jenny (Museum of the History of Science) shares her experience of  the event

Once a group of attendees visited an area manned by ourselves and volunteers, they were confronted with a ‘pick and mix’ of different objects ranging from a 1940’s breast exhauster to a velociraptor skull. Our role was to pass each object around the group and offer a brief description along with some gripping “WOW” facts. 

After all the objects had been introduced, the group had to agree on which object had the most potential in forming part of an education session. Some individuals were pretty adamant which object they wanted to choose, especially if the rest of their objects (which they had already collected) adhered to a certain theme such as medicine or the natural environment. One member of a group even asked a trainee on the sly whether she could downplay the importance of the objects, so the one which took his fancy had more of a chance of being selected! Thankfully bickering and major disagreements were avoided with each group settling for a majority vote to determine their choice.

Trainee Corie at her object handling table

 All in all the BIG mingle proved to be a motivating and enjoyable activity with the ice being successfully broken with the aid of objects.  The attendees showed curiosity and interest in the museums’ collections, especially the more unique and obscure. We had a fantastic time, despite it being a particularly hot day inside the Museum of Natural History, and were grateful for the opportunity to build on our knowledge of collections outside our own Museums; I was intrigued to discover that astronauts’ visors have a thin layer of gold to help protect them from the glare of the Sun and that if all the world’s refined gold was collected, it would fit into a 20m by 20m box.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

"If you're happy finding treasure, clap your hands!" - Under 5's archaeology session at The Ashmolean - Mary Cook

I love working with under fives and their families. I enjoy that everything is so new to them:  you can watch new discoveries in the process of being made.  They are often completely unguarded about showing how they feel. It is also a lovely time to work with their parents too – they are enjoying firsts with their children and their enjoyment is also unusually visible in trusted settings.   So working with this audience placed me firmly in my comfort zone. 

 As a Trainee you are being closely observed throughout the process and this is a little nerve wracking.  The setting is still new and the open drop-in nature of the event is a little different to my previous experiences of working with families, so I certainly was not complacent.   I was also conscious that the Ashmolean Museum has been long listed for the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Award.  At the Ashmolean  the group is open to all under fives from tiny babies and at this time of year it extends to visiting children who are over five attending with younger siblings.  All need to be able to be involved at their own level.  Being a parent too, I also had ambitions to ensure parents made discoveries and never felt bored. Finally, it was based on the theme of archaeology.  This is a wonderful theme for us at the Ashmolean with so many fantastic objects and stories from archaeology to share, but would I be able to enthuse young children and their families about that?  How many of my audience could even say “archaeologist”?  This event linked in to the national Festival of Archaeology

Fortunately for me there is a standing format for the under fives Big Dig event – three paddling pools each one full of a different type of materials – sand in one, packaging peanuts in another and shredded paper in a third.  In each pool a range of items.  From here the development of the session was up to me. 

 I know how much young children love animals and familiar plastic toy animals went in. The resulting mix included a range of safe non-choking hazard, robust objects of a variety of sizes, colours,  textures and shapes wooden pots, metal boxes pseudo objects such as a plastic sword next to real antler etc.  At tables we put paper and coloured pencils should any one wish to draw what they found.  We needed a second activity and for this I chose making clay animals like those in the Aegean World Gallery.  

Against one wall we put down mats and on these large trays and paint brushes – this created a child height lab for investigating, cleaning and sorting finds just like a real archaeologist.  Setting up the room I admired how neat and tidy it was.  I took a photograph. It did not look like that by the end of the session. The children had a lot of fun!

What surprised me most was that children happily put their finds into the shared lab area.  There was no snatching or not sharing and a real happiness in discovering together.  No one was left out.  Babies tended to stay digging and not move from there, the older children gravitated between dig and lab space and there were many interesting discussions between the older children – they were in a real state of flow – fully engaged throughout. One of them announced to me early on “I want to be an archaeologist”. I was happy to tell him he had come to the right place.  Another told me he had found an antler – we  had borrowed this from our Anglo Saxon handling collection and yes it was an antler.  “But how do you know its an antler?” I asked.  He was a little annoyed with the question but he patiently explained “I know it is an antler because I have seen a Reindeer Antler and this one is a lot like it” Good answer.  I told him that is just what an archaeologist does, they figure out what they have found based on what they know of similar items.  The ambition to help under-fives celebrate archaeology was going very well indeed. 

In the next room there was an opportunity to make with clay using cutters. A family with a baby sat him on the table where he played with the plastic shapes enjoying shape and texture while his sister experimented with what happens when you pour water on clay. “Ugh! Its slimy!” she said. Around the room a lot of people were finding out about the properties of clay, how to create texture with tools and what they did or did not like.  Images of clay bulls from our collection were on the table.  “Mine  is much better than that one” one of the children told me. “I’ve made three hedgehogs” said another “They are a family” 

Next it was time for the optional tour.  Most of the room emptied to follow me up to the Aegean World Gallery  where we took a look at the picture of Arthur Evans and saw some of his amazing discoveries. We used the song “If you’re happy finding treasure clap your hands” to process that we too had made discoveries downstairs and like him we had to sort them and clean them.  Together we looked at some of the objects he might have needed on a dig – the trowel, his sketchbook, tin mug and plate for camping out .

The children liked taking things out of the bag and loved the throne room and wall art – so much shape and colour. We moved in to the Near East gallery where we toured past the Archaeological Tell model and sang “One little finger” all about pointing – adapting it to point at objects in the gallery.  We also sang head shoulders knees and toes next to the skeleton before a lucky dip of the foam skeleton jigsaw.  The eldest to the youngest all enjoyed this and parent feedback at the end of the session was particularly positive.  
I can’t wait to do the next one, but I also like the idea of a more horrible histories approach to the Knossos archaeology with an 8+ audience . . .   The image of the bull which inspired our clay creations would be familiar to some of the parents from the Theseus and the Minotaur Myth.  It appears frequently in the Aegean World Gallery. This tells the story of archaeologist and former curator of the Ashmolean, Arthur Evans.  He was inspired by the ancient story of the Minotaur to look for the real Knossos Palace and discovering it.  Thinking about my audience, decided they  were a little too young for the horrible histories end of that, I decided to focus on the throne room items, wall art and clay cow models rather than child eating minotaur or Labyrinth rescue.  

Later on talking with one of the parents about that decision, he thought his three year old would love the story since it has scary bad guy and a daring rescue.  We discussed just how grim Grimm’s fairy tales had been – would any parent share an unexpurgated version now?  The conversation ended with him asking more about the gallery and deciding to come back to see it again with his family.  I was also happy to tell him I had read a reasonably child friendly version published by barefoot books.  I include this moment because I think its a really undervalued aspect of under fives learning in museums in general.  Parents crystalise approaches to creative parenting, you will often hear them say “we could do this at home” and it gives them time consider their values, bond with their children  and play together when they attend events like these. It’s not just children who are learning.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Getting to Know and Understand a Living Collection - Corie Edwards

Part of being an education officer is knowing the collection of your institution. This is a task that takes time and. As an HLF Skills for the Future Education & Outreach Trainee we are expected to learn as much as we can about the collections at the Oxford University Museums and Collections. We do not have to be experts, but we do need to have a grasp on the topics and objects we use for events and activities. That includes events currently running and planning ones for the future.

My first placement is with the Harcourt Arboretum  and Oxford Botanic Garden , both of which have a living collection. This is an added challenge when getting to know a collection because it means it fluctuates. I only have 4 months at this placement therefore I will inevitably miss many parts of this collection that are only around in the months I am not here. It is not like most institutions where the likelihood of an object you want to use for an event 6 months down the line will still be readily available.

For instance, over the last couple of months we have been using the meadow (which spans about 67 acres at the Harcourt Arboretum) to teach children about habitats, germination of plants, and different forms of wildlife. It was a great visual for them because they got to see it all. If we were to take children to the meadow now with the same lessons it wouldn’t work because the meadow has been chopped down for hay barreling, followed by its use as a sheep pasture  until after Christmas time. There isn’t much to see compared to before. Therefore, at the Arboretum we have to have our activities planned appropriately not only for the age of the group, but what is around during that time of year.

Meadow end of June 2014

Meadow as of 17 July 2014

 Another example that I am currently experiencing is our trails and activities for the family friendly events in August. The theme this year is parts of a plant. In general we have been able to work with what is readily available at this time of year in the Arboretum, but we do have some minor issues to work around. One would be our day on flowers. By August there aren’t many flowers left to see at the Arboretum. We can still have crafts that involve flowers, but how do we have a trail when there aren’t many flowers to see? (To find out the answer please attend our Fabulous Flowers Day  day on Tuesday 19 August). Also, for the end of August we have planned a day on seeds. There are many seeds around the Arboretum starting in August and going through the Autumn. However, there are loads of little animals around that like to eat those seeds. How do we ensure that there are still seeds around to be seen when we take people around? (To find out please attend our Splendid Seeds family day on Tuesday 26 August).

A couple of little animals around the Arboretum that like to eat the seeds
 Having a living collection does keep you on your toes in regards to what is available on the day, but that does not mean we cannot plan more stable events and/or activities. You plan future events by knowing generally what parts of your collection are around to see during the time of your future event or using objects that are a bit more stable (i.e. a 150 year old tree). I am currently developing a backpack that takes children on a rhyme around the Arboretum to see the different trees that spell ‘Arboretum’ (i.e. Acer, Redwood, etc.). And just because you have taken the time to read this article I am giving you a sneak peak of the fun in creating a rhyming backpack about trees:

Welcome to the Arboretum, we have trees of all sorts,
Many are native, but some we had to import.
We have green trees scattered about for you,
But look hard enough and you’ll find red and blue too.
We have fat trees and thin trees,
Old trees and new trees.
Wander off the path, there is loads to uncover,
The Arboretum is yours to discover!

Overall, it has been amazing these last few weeks to have the chance to wander around some  of the Arboretum to understand the collection better. I have only briefly been exposed to the amount of planning that needs to go into an event or activity based on what is available to see in the collection during that time of year. I look forward to planning future events and hopefully I will get to see how they go on the day. I am also looking forward to exploring the collections at my next two placements and how getting to know them differs from a place that has a living collection.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Cowley Road Carnival - Taking Museums out into the Local Community - Aisling Serrant

Recently we got the chance to participate in Cowley Road Carnival , our second event working together as a team. The theme was ‘Oxford Faces’ and so we decided to run mask making as our activity and we took with us lots of masks from different countries, as well as a horse skull and a velociraptor skull, which the public could handle for themselves. 

We had two preparation sessions before the carnival which allowed us to discuss what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. We wanted masks to represent the various museums and some of people’s favourite objects in them. But we also had to consider other factors, for example, if we had masks to appeal to a range of different ages and whether they were simple enough for an event like Cowley Road Carnival where a lot of people are going to pass through and many won’t want to stay for too long with so many other things going on around them.

 We trialled making some of the masks to test out which ones were easiest to make and what sorts of materials were best to use. We decided on the Egyptian pharaoh, dinosaur and samurai warrior masks, but also some more simple eye masks which allowed people to be more creative by coming up with a design from scratch. We photocopied the character masks and made our own templates of the more simple ones. We also drew up a list of what materials we needed to take with us and what we needed to buy before the big day.

When the day arrived we spent a couple of hours (and a lot of our energy!) setting up our area with two tents and lots of tables filled with all manner of crafty materials. Then we just had to wait for the carnival to start and the people to come, and come they did! We counted 220 children accompanied by just about as many adults who passed through our tent. Our visitors loved the activity and the day was a resounding success, especially as the sun stayed out for the whole event.

 The day ran smoothly and we didn’t encounter any major problems, however throughout the day me and the team did identify some things we could improve. Firstly when some people approached, because the whole area was so busy and full of stuff, they found it hard to see what the activity was, where they got the materials from and they were also unsure if it was a free activity or not. To resolve this Rachel made a sign saying ‘free mask making’ and I tidied up the main table so people could easily see the different options available. Also, I quite quickly realised that a lot of people didn’t want to go find an available template and draw round it themselves so I started drawing round and cutting some of the simple shapes so we had some ready for people to use.

 We had a great day which gave us experience of being involved in a big scale event with a lot of people passing through. Most of all everyone who visited us enjoyed the experience and we were thanked by lots of people for our presence at the event.