Thursday, 16 April 2015

Over the Rainbow: What happens when you get your dream job? - Mary Cook

The Skills for the Future Traineeship did exactly what it said on the tin.  It helped me to push through previous barriers, including the lack of a postgraduate degree, to join the ranks of Museum Learning Professionals.  I am now Lifelong Learning, Outreach and Access Officer for Steam Museum and Lydiard Park in Swindon.  Here are my reflections on arriving at my destination, Steam - Museum of the Great Western Railway and beautiful Lydiard Park in West Swindon.  Lydiard Park is a Georgian Mansion in landscaped grounds. Steam is a museum of Engineering and Victorian Social History on the site of the Great Western Railway factory.  It also includes a replica of a World War II public air raid shelter with objects sourced from the local community which is used for delivering experiential learning to schools. 

Mary (right) during her Skills for the Future training

When Neil Stevenson, Skills for the Future Traineeship Co-ordinator asked me what I wanted in a museum learning role, I told him this:

“I think I will be hard to place. Unlike other trainees I am tied to home, I cannot relocate or commute longer distances at the moment. “ He pushed me to spell out what I wanted, so I did.  Here is my wish list: 
  1. Variety -  engaging audiences across a range of subjects. 
  2. I really want to work in an outdoor as well as indoor site - either more than one site or variety of environment at the same site. Either is good, but both is better. 
  3. Ideally, I would like telling the story of the site to be as much of a priority as learning from the objects.  I enjoyed that so much on placement  at the University Museum of Natural History.
  4. I want to engage with a wide range of audiences rather than just one audience sector - whereas others tend towards specialism I find I really enjoy all audiences at this stage in my career. 
  5. Outreach has to be a priority. 
  6. Opportunities to develop and deliver formal and informal learning programme 
  7. Not more than 45 minutes from home, it needs to be a part time, rather than full time role but with flexibility to increase hours as my children get older.
Neil seemed very pleased with himself when he presented me with the advert for the role I have now.  When I saw it, I was very pleased too.  Naturally, I did not presume that I would get the first job I applied for, but I could see it genuinely ticked every single one of these boxes.  It seemed almost too good to be true, but it was a perfect fit.  I was very anxious though, as I really wanted the role and had previously not been successful at interview for similar roles prior to Skills for The Future training.  Once at interview I found the staff I met to be warm and engaging. When I was offered the role, I knew it was perfect for me.

Mary's new place of work - Steam Museum, Swindon

Three months in is it still a perfect fit?  

In any role, there are challenges and achievements. I think it is fair to say I have already experienced both.  I enjoy problem solving. I find challenging situations rewarding as they require innovative thinking and provide opportunities for personal development.  Honestly, I found the initial orientation challenging.  I missed friends I had seen daily at the Oxford museums.  I also missed the I-Pad, which was a fantastic tool both for learning, instantly recording feedback, planning and communicating and made cross-site working much simpler. 

One of the great things about the traineeship is that it is well resourced and, by the design of the traineeship and by the nature of a university setting there are multiple layers of mentoring.  This begins within the team and extends to the Traineeship Co-ordinator to other trainees to the wider museums and university community. Peer learning was hugely beneficial and assisted with building competence and confidence whether in terms of working in schools or with a freelancer or even to develop IT skills such as publishing i-books (thank you, Anjanesh Babu!).   In my new role, I wanted most of all to convey competence, so despite all I said above about the value of peer learning, initially I was reluctant to ask for assistance.

Fortunately for me, I have new colleagues who have gone out of their way to help me feel part of the team.  It dawned on me that peer learning does not stop with the end of the traineeship. As professionals, we continue to grow by learning from others, in fact if anything since starting this role my peer learning network has grown.  In-house, I have been fortunate to share my role with Lizzie Hares who has a great understanding of the needs of primary schools and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the handling collections. Alongside her, I work with Lucy Kender the informal learning lead who brings understanding of a range of audiences and a shared ethos regarding participatory museums.  Both are incredibly supportive, but also expect I will contribute effectively to the team, so have included and involved me from the beginning.   

Mary (back left) and her new colleagues at Lydiard House

Our line manager Nancy Heath also shows real faith in all of us to deliver, so there is considerable freedom to bring new ideas for consideration.    This is a positive and collaborative atmosphere in which to work.  Here are my highlights from our team’s work in the past three months:

  • Collections Management training and networking with representatives of South West Museums and Liz Neathey Museum Development Officer for SWFED at Calne Museum.
  • The opportunity to work with Events team colleagues to devise and deliver informal learning activities inspired by  Museum of History of Science astrolabes and Pitt Rivers Need, Make, Use balloon rocket powered cars.  Especially enjoyed encouraging the events team to invite my former colleague Rod Hebden from the National Trust to present at the event which all helped make a cloudy star gazing night a success none the less.  It was great to deliver to a different audience at an evening event at Lydiard and all of it was well received.
  • Designing and developing Detective Boxes for 7’s to 11’s, which have shown a good level of sales since their launch in February half term.  Using a choose your own adventure style story line, children must solve clues to a crime which relates to an object from the museum.  It extends access by raising awareness of objects not on display as well as encouraging observation in the museum. These continue to sell.
  • Facilitating World War II object handling in Steam Museum on the theme of codes and detection.  Enjoyed engaging with people who found the objects resonated with their experience of the War. Also enjoyed meeting people who were grateful for the opportunity to reminisce about their  family connections with the GWR factory - the sense of community ownership for this place is humbling.
  • Developing a specification for an under-fives interactive at Lydiard Park, contacting suppliers and currently looking for community partner in the FE sector  to work on the carpentry.
  • Storytelling and Seed Planting at Lydiard Park.  Enjoyed helping visiting under 7’s to connect with the purpose of a site and help them learn a little science outdoors in the sunshine.  They enjoyed meeting puppet Frederick Fox Cub a reminder of some of the other residents of Lydiard Park too.
  • Supporting the delivery of “We’ll Meet again” an immersive World War II experience for school children  
Frederick Fox and seed planting

 In the near future, I will be working on:
  • Developing a Swindon Heritage Learning blog 
  • Partnering with former Skills for the Future Trainee Kelly Smith Community and Learning Officer Stowe House Trust to share ideas for working with schools at a Georgian Mansion site 
  • Outreach and cross promotion with Swindon Borough Council colleagues from Libraries 
  • Planning and delivering refresher training to casually employed education officers in best practice for object handling. 
  • Co-creating an evaluation strategy that will provide evidence of what different audiences value and what would make our offer even more effective.
I am so incredibly grateful for this opportunity.  Thank you to the Heritage Lottery fund for the vision to make it possible for people to make up for lost time by creating such an innovative and relevant training opportunity.

Thank you to the team at Lydiard Park and Steam for being willing to take on someone like me who is always asking, “Why do we do it that way?  Could we try this?” 
Every member of staff and each of the fantastic volunteers care so passionately about these unique and fascinating sites, it is an honour to work as part of the team.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Oxfordshire Goes Wild – Jenny Hulmes

Over the Easter holidays, I helped with an event called ‘Oxfordshire Goes Wild’, organised by the Oxford Museum of Natural History in conjunction with Wild Oxfordshire. The purpose of the event was to invite families to discover and explore Oxfordshire’s reptiles, insects, amphibians, birds and mammals with the aid of wildlife groups running various interactive workshops throughout the Museum.

During the event, the Museum was a hub of activity with families making crafts such as bug hotels and Red Kites’ nests to highlight the importance of conservation. I had the privilege of running the owl pellet dissection workshop. I showed families how to examine the contents of an owl pellet to see what it had been eating. Many of the children who participated in the workshop got really stuck into it (on the other hand, the adults tended to be more squeamish) and marvelled at the clumps of fur, tiny bones and skull fragments that made up the pellets. A diagram and key was on hand to help participants investigate what small mammal the owl had eaten; was it a shrew, mouse or mole? One boy managed to find three shrew skulls in one pellet, indicating that the owl was an especially good hunter! 

Owl pellet

What was particularly inspiring and memorable about the event was seeing real living breathing animals in the Museum. Amongst the Museum’s animal skeletons and taxidermy specimens, families could handle snails, slow worms and a grass snake and meet different species of bat. Down in the Museum’s Annex, more living animals could be found such as rescued owls and two baby crocodiles from Crocodiles of the World. It was brilliant that families were able to get up really close to these beautiful creatures and learn more about their life in the wild through touching and handling them and having conversations with the wildlife groups who had specialist knowledge.

Jenny with a baby crocodile

The event was immensely popular and helped me to understand and appreciate that the more successful and rewarding Museums events, are those which have a clear and tangible connection to the Museum’s collections. For instance, after handling a grass snake, you could see the delicate skeleton of a snake on display in the Museum. Similarly, following the dissection of a Barn Owl pellet, you could find and touch the Barn Owl specimen close by and admire how its anatomy explains its prowess as a hunter. It is this is what makes museum learning a uniquely different experience to learning within the classroom.

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Importance of 1:1 meetings with Skills for The Future trainees - Neil Stevenson, Project Manager

When creating the training programme for the Oxford Skills for the Future trainees it was recognised that arranging regular opportunities for the trainee to have a 1:1 with myself as their Project Manager would enable the trainee to update me with their progress and to talk about what they had been doing on placement. In reality the 1:1s covered so much more, and reflecting on the process I believe that they have been an integral part of the success of both the trainees time here in Oxford and in their future careers.

Generally the 1:1s have taken place once every fortnight, sometimes less so, other times more regularly. They lasted approximately 1 hour and took place in any of the following environments: a quiet space away from others, in museum galleries, or over a coffee in a local café. Sometimes when space was difficult to find the 1:1s happened in office spaces where other members of staff were working. This was not an ideal environment!

For many trainees 1:1s were something new. Some of the trainees responded positively to the opportunity of chatting to their line manager, for others it took them longer to adjust, especially in feeling comfortable and confident talking about themselves. 

To ease trainees into the 1:1s it was important to introduce and explain the process and purpose of the meetings and how as their manager I was there to listen, support, and advise. During the early 1:1s my role was to lead the session, encouraging the trainee to engage with the process and to feel more confident in shaping the meeting to meet their own needs. On average trainees took between 6 weeks to 4 months to feel confident taking the lead in the 1:1s.

If trainees had specific things they wanted to talk about in the 1:1s they were asked to email me in advance. This gave me time to think about the things they wanted to discuss and also ensured that I was in a position to support them in the best possible way. If they were worried about finding work beyond the traineeship it gave me time to carry out a job search for suitable positions. If they were interested in developing particular skills and knowledge I was able to use this time to speak with colleagues to find out if they were able to support the trainee in gaining this knowledge, or if not then time for me to search the internet for external training opportunities. 

The things covered in meetings varied hugely. Some of these included:

-       Update on placement progress, including what the trainees had been doing, who they had been working with

-       Reflecting on things that had gone well and things that had been more challenging

-       Professional development

-       Personal issues, including accommodation difficulties, health and well-being

-       Placement and training difficulties

-       Time management

-       Working with specific audiences

-       Discussing ideas for independent projects and finding ways to develop ideas

-       Discussions about the wider museum and museum education sector

-       Feeling low in confidence and finding ways to increase confidence

-       Understanding the job market, identifying jobs, applying for jobs and interview preparation

The following are a selection of quotes from trainees sharing their feelings about the importance of 1:1s:

1:1s are useful for sharing ideas, asking tricky questions concerning structuring a project and time management. They are also really valuable in preparing for job applications, especially relating practical experiences gained on the traineeship to skills required of a role.


1:1s are the time we get to speak about anything in regards to the traineeship with our Coordinator. Whether that is just an update on what we are doing at our placements, to help with job applications, or to just talk through a difficult situation we are experiencing. They are a great way to keep the lines of communications open with our Coordinator and a place that we can trust that what we share doesn't go beyond our meeting, unless the Coordinator and trainee agree. Personally, I cannot image the traineeship without them.


I am finding the 1:1s useful throughout the traineeship, the nature of discussions changes in accordance with what I’m learning. Reflection about my professional development and planning for my future careers are integral parts of the traineeship and normally I find both of these things difficult to do. At university I didn’t have a tutor or mentor, so while I find the 1:1 meetings occasionally stressful for a variety of reasons - reflecting on both positives and negatives of my work and attempting to rationalise my ideas for the future – I can now see the benefits of taking the time to talk with someone who has more experience and can see the bigger picture of museum education.


1:1s are really important as a chance to reflect on what we have been doing and how we have felt about it, and also to plan for what we feel we need to do more of as our traineeship progresses.  We are able to get advice and feedback and ask questions about anything we feel unsure about. They are also a chance for us to get in depth mentoring on important aspects such as developing our final projects, and starting to look for and apply for jobs in preparation for our traineeships coming to an end.


On reflection I feel very positive having offered trainees 1:1 meetings. They provided an opportunity to support the trainee individually rather than as part of a group, encouraged them to reflect on their own progress and to identify their training needs, positively challenged them to think about doing things in a different way even if it meant taking a risk, and encouraged them to understand who they are as professionals and what they have to offer the sector.

I hope a lasting legacy will be that former trainees will remember how important 1:1s were to their own development and therefore, when in a position to do so, offer them to their own staff and trainees throughout their future careers.