Friday, 5 December 2014

Primary in the Pitt: Discovery and exploration - Rachel McLaughlin

To enter the Pitt Rivers, you leave the airy brightness of the Museum of Natural history, descend the steps and emerge into a smaller, darker space with Victorian looking cabinets and so many thousands of objects on display it’s difficult to take any particular details in. This is a challenging but exciting space in which to teach primary school children. The distractions are all around them, but the objects that relate to their subject are just as interesting.

Nearly halfway through my placement at the Pitt Rivers, I’m independently teaching sessions to primary schools.

I have led small groups of 6-10 on Egyptian guided trails around the museum, stopping at certain objects and examining why ancient Egyptian objects have certain features. All sessions in the Pitt Rivers have to take account of the museum’s unique display style. There is no single place to find all the ancient Egyptian objects; the objects are all over the museum, in different cases according to the type or function of the objects. The sessions cover the use of colour, shape and style, which provides a starting point for discussing how the Ancient Egyptians lived - as well as the myths and stories relevant to the objects.

The children are encouraged to become “Egypt Detectives” and learn to identify Ancient Egyptian objects in the many varied cases in the Pitt Rivers, which is put to the test at the end of the session when they need to find objects for themselves. We give them the skills they need to continue learning about Egyptian life when they’re back at school, as they can now identify what makes Egyptian culture distinct.

Egypt Detectives  copyright Pitt Rivers Museum

I have also led my first masks session for a whole class. I enjoyed this, despite feeling nervous. Although I felt like it could have gone wrong at any moment, I only forgot one thing - luckily I was reminded, just in time! I also had some good feedback afterwards – apparently my nerves didn’t come across at all!

In the session, we look at what mood the masks are in, and how you can tell. Learning about masks involves using lots of handling objects. Each child has an opportunity to touch at least 12 masks during their visit, as well as looking at many more both in the taught session and during the activities in the museum.

Some of the mask cases in the museum copyright Pitt Rivers Museum

 Deciding on the mood of the masks is personal to each viewer. There may be an intended emotion shown by the mask maker, but depending on personal experience, as well as practical factors such as the angle the mask is viewed from, there can be many different interpretations. We ask the students questions to help them understand the masks for themselves.

How do you feel when your face goes red?
What angle are the eyebrows at?
How do those colours make you feel?
How sharp are the teeth?
What shape is it?

Of course it is great fun (and a bit scary!) to get a class of 30 to all pull an angry face at the same time!

Some of the many masks which children can hold  copyright Pitt Rivers Museum
I feel very lucky to have an opportunity to teach in the Pitt Rivers Museum, and I will be teaching more as my placement continues and my confidence with the sessions grows.

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