Thursday, 9 October 2014

Learning from Objects– Rachel McLaughlin

Recently we had a training day at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum. The sessions were about learning from objects. About 15 people attended from museums all over the South East. We had a wide variety of objects to learn with, from pennies and amulets to textiles and trees. 

We started with some coin handling. Coins are very interesting for many museum visitors as everyone already knows what they’re for. Museum staff  are often asked “what is it worth?” Learning to read the symbolism and exploring what a coin can tell you about a certain place and time can give a great starting point to begin learning about the people who used the coins.

The second session was all about drawing from objects. In pairs, one person had the object, and had to describe it to their partner who hadn’t seen it – and they had to draw it. We had some very interesting attempts! We then tried other methods: with our non-dominant hand,  without looking at our paper, by using one continuous line and from memory. Drawing something so many times and in such a variety of way really helped us lose our fear of drawing badly and it really made observational drawings fun!

My drawings

We had two sessions in the Pitt Rivers – one was a way to explore the museum by taking objects and an associated map locating similar items. We had to find out where the objects were from, and what they were used for. It was exciting to be able to explore the museum for ourselves and reporting back gave us the ownership of the information we had found. We also had the last session of the day there, doing a couple of quizzes about what objects can tell us about the people who owned, used or made them. 
Trees are also objects! Leaves, bark and flowers can also all be used as objects in sessions. Lynn Daley from Harcourt Arboretum got us categorising leaves to create a key, and brought in her imaginary giant redwood which she takes out into schools. We all stood inside its trunk, and discovered how big it is compared to the lawn in front of the museum of natural history.

Trainee Corie and other group member creating a leaf key

One of the community outreach officers, Nicola Bird, brought in a variety of objects made of fabric, and some fibres and materials which go with them. The activity made us really feel the fibres carefully, and we were encouraged to think about the objects more generally as we interacted with them. Were things heavier than we expected? Were they softer than we expected? Talking to each other about the objects was enjoyable as well as helping us learn something, and having fun is one of the main aims of outreach sessions.

Emma Williams from the Botanic Garden brought a variety of seeds for us to categorise, we had to think hard about how some seeds would disperse themselves. Finding the seeds which disperse by propulsion (i.e. exploding) was very exciting – we probably dispersed a few too many seeds around the inside of the museum annexe!

Objects and activities from Harcourt Arboretum and the Botanic Garden

Throughout the day, many similar techniques were used to extract information and use the objects educationally. We always had to look carefully – questioning techniques and activities always encouraged considered observation. We were encouraged to find out about objects non-judgementally, to find common themes between them and identify aspects that were either familiar or new to us. The wonder and fascination which interacting with an unfamiliar object is a big part of museum education – the excitement that is then associated with exploring museum objects can really change attitudes to learning new things.

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