Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Mineral Bling: Health and Wellbeing through learning and doing at museums - Corie Edwards

I recently had the opportunity to work with the Community Outreach Officer and a group of adults with learning difficulties at the Museum of Natural History learning all about minerals. The group consisted of adults with a varying range of learning difficulties and their support staff. Some support staff looked after more than one adult when others had one to one support depending on their level of need. Having this wide range meant tailoring the delivery so everyone had a level of understanding. Therefore the session was made up of several learning styles allowing participating adults to achieve different aims, including learning, enjoyment, inclusivity and social.

The group was together in a semi-circle facing not only the education officer but also one another. Having this set-up made it more sociable and put everyone on an equal level. It made it easy to talk and discuss, both with the museum staff and everybody in the group. The semi-circle was facing a PowerPoint presentation of minerals which had many vibrant pictures. Whilst each slide was up we also had a plethora of minerals for the group to handle and contextualised the minerals by asking questions and relating them to similar things they use in their lives, i.e. salt on chips. That way they could see and touch the minerals we were talking about in the pictures. 

Small selection of the minerals that were handled

Towards the end of the first half of the session we passed out chunks of Crunchie bars and Mars bars. The Crunchie bar gave a great visualisation of what the inside of an igneous rock looks like, full of air to make it light. The Mars bar was both sedimentary and metamorphic as when you first look at the chunk of candy bar you can see its layers – chocolate, nugget and caramel, but then when you apply pressure and squeeze it together it changes, it doesn’t look the same anymore, therefore it is now a metamorphic rock. It also made a great transition into a snack break.

The second half of the session was making bling! The Museum of Natural History donated a bunch of minerals to the outreach team specifically for this session. Most of the minerals started out as large chunks about the size of an adult fist, but after being prepared by the education officer before the session with a special rock splitter, we were able to use them for necklaces and key rings. Each member of the group got to choose one or two pieces of mineral, cord, and wire. 

The selection for making bling

 With the help of their support staff, the museum staff and volunteers everyone left with at least one piece of beautiful museum mineral bling!

I really enjoyed this session and it was because of the excitement and enthusiasm of the group. It was easy to see that they got a lot out of the session. It was not just about learning the different kinds of rocks and minerals the museum has in its collection. It was also a social gathering to talk to people you already know or just met that day. It was an opportunity to handle real minerals like rubies and emeralds and talk about which one was your favourite and why. It was a unique session that allowed you to work with your hands and leave with a piece of bling that was not only symbolic of the museum but also what you were able to create. And through all of that and all the fun we had we were promoting health and well being without it being apparent. 

Completed pieces of jewellery by the group

Museums are unique places that can offer unrivalled opportunities for everyone in their community. We are not just institutions of formal learning. We can offer that and so much more with just a bit of teamwork between departments and creativity with groups. We really can change people’s lives and this session is just one example. I have to say, just to end this post, one of the group members at this session made an amazing stunning necklace with pink quartz and plans to give it to his girlfriend when he proposes. There are few events in life that are as life changing as getting married.

Working with Deaf and Visually Impaired Groups at The Ashmolean - Jenny Hulmes

During my Traineeship, I have learned more about the ways in which museums and collections cater for visitors who are Deaf, or have a visual impairment. The Ashmolean Museum runs interpreted tours for these audiences and I was fortunate to assist Jude Barrett, the Museum’s Education Officer for Adults and Young People, with their delivery.

For the British Sign Language interpreted tour, I joined a deaf group and Jude in looking at the Museum’s temporary exhibition of Chinese paintings. Jude led the tour, whilst a BSL Interpreter translated what was being said to the group. What made the tour particularly engaging, was that we got to handle traditional Japanese brushes and paper in the galleries; enabling us to understand the various processes involved in creating these beautiful art works.

After we had explored the paintings in the galleries, I joined the group in the Museum’s Study Room, where we met and conversed with (with the help on the Interpreter) members of staff involved in collection care and management, and got to handle a selection of authentic Chinese artefacts used in painting, dating back hundreds of years. The tour offered a fantastic multi-sensory experience for the group who especially enjoyed going behind the scenes and seeing objects not on public display. I also put the BSL I had learned into practice, having small conversations with some members of the group about the objects.

Like the BSL tour, the tour for a group of visually impaired visitors focused on the Ashmolean’s exhibition of Chinese paintings. Before I joined the group in exploring the paintings in the gallery, we congregated in the Museum’s Education Studio where we spoke about the tradition of Chinese painting and carried out some object handling. The objects had been carefully selected to appeal to the groups’ stronger senses and included fresh bamboo and chrysanthemums, painting tools and materials. As the group had varying degrees of visual impairment, Jude provided a range of resources to meet the needs of each individual. For example, some of the group had slight vision, so Jude provided them with large bold prints of the paintings, others in the group had no vision, so Jude ensured they had access to raised images they good feel.

Visually impaired group carrying out object handling

Following the session in the Education Studio, we went up to the exhibition. I helped to guide members of the group. Once in the gallery, Jude and I talked about the paintings, what they represented and responded to queries. When talking about the paintings, I tried to be as descriptive as possible to help those with no or very little sight, form a mental image: I found that making links between the paintings on display with the objects we had held previously in the Education Studio helped with this. To increase the interaction with the paintings, the group were able to move their fingers gently over the paintings (which were glazed) to help them trace prominent lines and shapes.

What I learned most from my experience of working with the Deaf and visually impaired groups, is that tours designed for these audiences, need to be as inclusive as possible, catering for a diverse range of needs by avoiding the assumption that all visually impaired visitors require the same needs, and the same for Deaf visitors. To aid with inclusion and facilitate a range of different needs, a museum educator needs to be flexible and adaptable in their delivery, and make use of differentiated resources to increase accessibility to museum collections. I am currently planning the next BSL Interpreted tour at the Ashmolean, and am looking forward to putting what I have learned into practice.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Angels at the Ashmolean: My under 5s event – Aisling Serrant

One of the best aspects of our Skills for the Future traineeship is that we gain experience working with a wide variety of different audiences. On my placement at the Ashmolean Museum, along with teaching schools sessions and various other projects, I have been working towards leading two of my own events, an under 5s event and a family event. 

Although both events ran successfully I feel the under 5s was the most challenging and the one where I learnt most. The first thing I did in preparation for it was mind map anything that came to mind when I thought of the title ‘Little Angels’ - stars, night-time, ice, snowflakes, clouds, silver and gold. The event was to run in the week before Christmas so I knew it would have a festive theme. Myself and Education Officer Rowan came up with hoards of ideas, the tricky part was narrowing them down to the best few!

The craft activities I chose where angel Christmas tree toppers and simple star shaped tree decorations. The resources for these crafts were easy to create being simple designs, and they were adaptable to a variety of levels. The difference of abilities in this audience is huge, so I designed activities where children could either do some colouring, painting and gluing and have a grown up put it together, or fully cut out and assemble it themselves. The angels were made out of a variety of materials – card, cotton wool, paper doilies, string, pipe cleaners and sequins – which made for a good opportunity to explore different textures and how to attach them to each other. There was also a designated paint table set up for the braver parents which again allowed for the use of materials not so readily available at home. 

Angel Christmas tree toppers

The crafts were enjoyed by both children and parents and there were plenty of angels spotted flying around the Ashmolean. However I wanted the event to be a multisensory experience and so I considered what other elements could help achieve this. One thing which proved to be very popular was my snow and ice foam pool. I made this by filling a paddling pool with baby wash and water mixed with an electric whisk (with a sign making clear the ingredients should any parents be worried) and also some ice cubes. This was an incredibly exciting experience for the children and it also led the way for science conversations about what ice is made from and how it forms. One parent was overheard saying she liked the idea so much she was going to recreate it at home!

Another key part of my event was a tour I planned and ran in the galleries. I based it around a story as a hook for the children’s interest and also a way of helping it make sense to them. Annie the Angel wanted to play in the angel’s Christmas concert but she had lost her silver trumpet. The children had to help her find it, meeting some of Annie’s angel friends along the way. To make the experience as interactive as possible I equipped each child with a party trumpet to toot at points in the story. This seemed like an amazing idea before the event and it wasn’t until the start of the tour that I realised what I had done! Giving 20 under 5s a trumpet and expecting them to have the restraint to only toot it when they were supposed to, was a bit of an oversight on my part. As soon as they were given out I realised it was going to be very difficult to be heard over the din and this really affected my introduction. It was very difficult to quieten down the group at the bits when I needed to talk.  I thought about ways to improve this the second time round and decided to hand the trumpets out a little later when I had already had chance to set up the story and I could more carefully model when to use them. 

Another issue I encountered during the first tour was one of the activities I created where I made a giant cardboard snowman whose hat, scarf, mittens, arms and nose were scattered around the gallery because of the wind. Mr snowman was meant to need the help of the children to put his clothes back on but to my dismay when I arrived in the gallery he had already been fully dressed by a couple of unknowing children looking round with their parents! I quickly grabbed the items and put them in a pile next to him! I avoided this the second time round by hiding the snowman’s body until I arrived and also asking the Visitor Services Assistants to keep a watchful eye on him! Getting to do the tour twice was really good as it helped me figure out how to adapt to problems that arise when running a session.

Assembled snowman
Other parts of the tour included a snowflake nursery rhyme, discussions about what snow and ice are made from and searching the gallery for the silver trumpet, finishing with everyone singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Repetition is of huge importance at that age so I designed parts of the story with repeated refrains where the children could join in. They had to ask each of Annie’s friends ‘Have you seen Annie’s silver trumpet?’ and when the friend replied they weren’t sure what a trumpet sounded like they had to demonstrate with their own trumpets, to the surprise (and sometimes alarm!) of nearby visitors.

Aisling practicing the snowflake nursery rhyme
I think tools like this repeated refrain really helped the children get involved with the story of the tour. I had the most amazing feedback after and it made me so proud that it was my event.  Perhaps the most rewarding bit of feedback I had was a young girl who came to me to show me her star decoration. She pointed to the angels on it saying they were Annie, Gabriel and Raphael, the angels from my tour. The adult with her said “It was a beautiful morning. Very well organised. We had a lovely time.” She then went on to comment that now when they came back to the museum they would be able to go back to the paintings to find Gabriel and Raphael and know what they were about. Wow!

Feedback from the event

I really felt I put my all into this event and there were times when I thought I had pushed myself too far – like stood in the atrium of the museum trying to give an introduction with 20 under 5s tooting party horns and crowds gathered on the upper floors checking out what all the commotion was.  I put myself out there; leading singing out in the middle of the galleries is something I never would have had the confidence to do not so long ago. ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ is fine because you know the adults will join in but ‘I’m a Little Snowman’ and ‘Five Snowflakes’ less so! When I told a friend about this she said she can’t believe how much I’ve changed, she said ‘Imagine yourself doing that a year ago?!’ And it is unimaginable - but that’s what working in such a supportive environment with people who really believe in you, and encourage you to believe in yourself will do!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Moving On: Reflecting of my Skills for the Future training - Mary Cook

At the University of Oxford Museum of Natural History, we are able to offer some fantastic experiences for all our visitors, but arguably our Christmas Lectures for Year 9’s have the most potential to be life changing.  Seeing experiments happen right in front of them in the lecture theatre and hearing from some of the best in their field, these students are offered a chance to look at what university education offers close up. These lectures are delivered by some of the front runners in the field of science who are well known by their peers and who more usually teach undergraduates and graduates.  What could follow that? 

However talented the speaker, it turns out the collection of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is itself just as able to keep the attention of the hard to impress teenager.  Surrounded by twenty Year 9 students recoiling from cockroaches loudly and with pantomime gestures, I feel pretty much at home.  Is that the picture that comes to mind as the definition of success?  For me, I think it is. Two hundred students came out of the Chemistry lecture in high spirits.   I hear the lads before I see them and when I ask the group “Would anyone like to come and see some cockroaches?” They respond en masse, egging each other on while clearly reluctant as individuals to actually touch the insects.  The noise settles as I wait for their attention then introduce the insects.

Handling a cockroach

Curiosity gets the better of them. Once several others have gently touched its back and found it to feel a bit like the wooden surface of the handling table, one of them bravely offers to hold a large cockroach.  In a 2 minute encounter they have overcome a prejudice, calmed their behaviour, bonded with the group and learnt about the relevance of insects in biodiversity and asked relevant questions taking responsibility for their own learning. 
Museum education is not solely about the moment of encounter with the collection, but also the reflection and discussion of that encounter. One of the girls who had never previously come to the museum and had never handled insects before really enjoyed the experience. She insisted her friend film the cockroach in her hand as she didn’t want her mum to miss out on learning about the insects. I wonder how her mum felt about that?

I guess there is quite a parallel with my own experience. Through Skills for the Future, I too have had an unusual opportunity to experience something unique in a hands-on way, and have been able to apply theoretical knowledge about learning to real scenarios.  I also have a responsibility to ensure my own development and make the most of what is offered and then share it in new ways.  A recent job interview showed me exactly how relevant the Skills for the Future programme was, focusing as it did on  the skills of working as part of a wider team, being adaptable to the needs of an audience in the moment as well as planning ahead and creating and developing a programme and resources.  I was able to give examples of working with a wide range of audiences from Under Fives to Over 90’s and everyone in between.  I could  talk about working in a wide range of contexts from a science museum DNA workshop in the lab to shadowing Reminiscence Officer Helen Fountain at a Day Centre for the elderly, to teaching a KS1 group at  the Shrine of Taharqa in the Ashmolean Museum and of course the lantern workshops which involved 200 children in nine schools.  In addition, I could talk about creating resources for all these audiences and reflect on my own learning. 

Facilitating a DNA workshop at OUM

These experiences are not unique to me of course; Aisling, Corie, Hannah, Jenny and Rachel can equally cite their relevant experience as opportunities for work arise for them.  But while our direction of travel in terms of our career ambition is the same, we are very different people.  Each one of us brings different strengths and approaches, and we have learnt to make the most of that difference too.  Sharing and growing through peer learning is a key part of our training and gives us something that is common to all good museum educators: we share ideas and resources and lend a hand and are extremely adaptable.  Of all the experiences I have particularly enjoyed working with the other trainees on Outreach and In-reach activities such as Friday Live at the Ashmolean, The Need Make Use at the Pitt Rivers Museum  or Cowley Carnival.  Where non-traditional museum audiences and these personalities combine I am always impressed by the result which is so creative. The visitor comments show that the experience for them is effortless and fun despite the huge amount of work behind the scenes!   

Trainees preparing for Live Friday at the Ashmolean

Trainees taking the 'museums' to the Cowley Carnival

While each of us has much in the way of initiative we also know that pooling talent makes for the best events and activities and enables us to achieve much more in a short space of time than we could alone.  As importantly, we have unique opportunities in Oxford to work at different sites in different collections with different strategic priorities.  We have learnt much from assisting other Education professionals in each museum as they negotiate the daily issues that are never on the job description, such as: “You will need to manage a group of thirty people several of whom are in wheelchairs.  They are coming to an exhibition on the 3rd floor. The Lift can only take one wheel chair at a time.  Ensure that every person in the group has an interesting and low stress visit” or “Manage the expectations of a secondary school group who despite their booking apparently thought this was a different museum with another specialism”  or “A group of thirty has just arrived unannounced and require a lesson”  “A schoolchild would like to buy one of the exhibits.”  “A volunteer wishes to work with only one activity out of three and is rejecting your proposed rota.”  “Create an app for KS2 which is user friendly, accessible to all abilities and which will be of interest to schools” “Adapt a resource created for families to use with a primary group.  Now adapt it again for under-fives.” 

Before I did the traineeship, I felt my lack of a teaching or post graduate qualification was a barrier to gaining a role in museum education.  Rejections from museum and heritage organisations suggested that my informal experience as a volunteer did not really count and my Heritage studies degree was almost an artefact in itself being from 20 years previous.  In applying for the Skills for the Future Education and Outreach Traineeship I was really looking for a way to prove to employers I could add value to their organisation and contribute as a member of their team.  The feedback from my Skills for the Future interview showed me that the imagination, innovation and hard work I had brought to volunteering were very welcome here at the Oxford University Museums and Collections  and would create foundations to build upon.  Through rigorous recruiting and incredible training it is clear that Skills for the Future Trainees are all highly committed to working in museum education and each of us will reflect on our experiences to push the bar higher next time. 
Post Script:  Mary has just accepted the role of Lifelong Learning and Outreach Officer at Steam Museum and Lydiard Park in Swindon.