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Museum Vision: Adding Value through Museum Learning - by Brian Kennedy

After working in museum learning for almost eighteen years within Leicestershire County Council, Heritage and Arts Service I still occasionally find myself asking the perennial question, “What are museums actually for?”. Although it feels remarkably strange to be asking such a question after so long within the museums environment the truth is I’m still not sure it is a question we ask ourselves often enough, no matter what the answer may be.

Frequently when I ask others the same question the answer that comes back has more to do with the functions museums perform; preserving culture for the future; a generalised view that museums are about learning or the observation that museums support community identity. To my mind such responses, although in many cases self-evidently true, fall a little short of defining or truly capturing the fundamental and unique experiences people have when they engage with museums and their collections.

Why is this a problem? And why is it a particular issue now for museum learning? In crude terms I believe it is crucial museum professionals and specifically museum learning staff are clear as why they are providing a particular service and not another, and that such decisions are made on the basis of a consistent rationale. In focusing too overtly on what we do rather than why we do it, museums run the real risk of floundering as priorities shift and funding shrinks.

In times of rapid change there is of course another danger museums face as they endeavour to adapt to new circumstances, namely that of potentially chasing agendas and losing sight of the values and services that museums represent; in effect diluting a more fundamental vision of museums. In this context museum learning services which are often in the vanguard of such adaptations can, without proper oversight, come to be regarded as almost separate operations divorced from the core work of museums.

In such times the initial question, “what are museums for?” takes on a new urgency and significance in shaping the role and success of museums over the next decade. From my point of view, working in museum learning, the answer is relatively simple; museums present a unique contribution to developing individual creativity. By creativity I mean the creation of new personal knowledge, understanding and empathy on the part of those individuals that museums engage with. As Arthur Koestler noted in The Act of Creation (London, 1964) new knowledge is most powerfully created when one consciously or unconsciously combines previously unrelated aspects of understanding in a way that creates a new insight. This process of ‘bisociation’ or creative leap, can either subvert, or deepen, our existing individual views and interpretation of the world that surrounds us.

Museums are ideally placed to encourage ‘bisociation’. Historical artefacts, for example, often combine elements of the familiar and the unfamiliar in ways that draw in the attention and confronts our understanding of the everyday possessions that we routinely take for granted. Coupled with key information, an encounter with a museum object, or collection, can genuinely and indelibly change a person’s insight into how we organise, perceive and live our lives.

To illustrate the preceding point I recall a workshop we run with teachers. In the workshop the participants have to match up a range of items to a choice of fabricated possible owners. One of the items is a child’s umbrella decorated with scenes from ‘Bob the Builder’, a well known children’s television programme. As there is only one child represented amongst the ‘owners’ the match seems obvious. When asked however how they accomplished the task it becomes clear that since the umbrella is indeed a perfectly functioning umbrella, the criteria that have been applied to identify its owner are the colour, iconography and materials used which are themselves culturally defined. A comparison with children’s artefacts from the past, or artefacts from other cultures, soon confirms that such cultural conventions vary over time and space. At the end of the session it is common for some of the teachers to report a new recognition of how the use of common objects is rule governed and the realisation that objects themselves are seldom culturally neutral.

In another example, during a Romans session for school visitors, and after a brief explanation on Roman villas, children are asked to place a variety of Roman pottery in what they perceive are the correct rooms of the villa. High quality ‘Samian’ ware usually ends up in the dining room while the rougher pottery goes squarely into the kitchen. It is only when the children are asked to justify their choices, and whether their choices can actually be justified, that the children really begin to understand both their own concepts of quality, status, social convention and whether or not these ideas can be appropriately applied to the past. In essence the activity makes subconscious understanding conscious, and implicit thought processes explicit. Ideally the outcome is that children start to develop a more solid and less anachronistic understanding of the past.

Museums are full of such opportunities to engage people in personal creativity. Museums buildings themselves are indeed special spaces outside of the normal day-to-day routines of most people. They are places for reflection and spaces where new connections and combinations of ideas can be facilitated. Museums can benefit from the fact that that when people choose to visit museums they do so often with an expectation to be challenged and surprised and as such are already primed to be creative.

At Snibston, part of Leicestershire County Councils Museums, the new Fashion Gallery eschews a chronological approach in favour of one that questions the role of clothing, looks at the aesthetic appeal of fashion and examines the technology behind fashion. Utilising themed displays of modern iconic items of clothing alongside historical garments invites the fusion of disparate ideas to create a new understanding of the function of fashion and clothing in our own society.

Elsewhere museums and galleries regularly juxtapose works of art that were never intended to be seen together to facilitate combinations of ideas and expressive intent that help create new revelations and new emotional empathy. In addition, Natural History collections often present an alternative opportunity to experience the physical world and its varied natural wealth in a way that simply would not be possible outside of the museum context.

If museums as buildings already offer an effective type of ‘hothouse’ for the creation of personal knowledge, what is the role of museum learning and those professionals engaged in it? From my point of view I believe it is the role of museum learning professionals to find imaginative new ways to construct ever more opportunities for individual creativity. Furthermore I also believe museum learning teams should also endeavour to find and exploit those contexts outside of museums that offer the greatest potential for museum collections to add value, to add that unique dimension of ‘bisociation’ that just can’t be delivered in whatever existing activity or service that the museum staff seek to collaborate with. This last point is key in that it is fruitless to simply replicate areas of work that other professionals can deliver far more effectively. Just as museum learning should not recreate the classroom in the museum, neither should they emulate health workers or specialist community workers. The basic message is don’t do it if someone else can do it better!

In pursuing the above, by adding value, museums can find a new relevance in a time of economic constraint; a relevance that goes beyond chasing agendas or diluting notional museum core values but rather is based on a consistent understanding of what museums are for and what they can deliver.

Reaching out beyond the traditional areas of museum activity understandably invites practical challenges. Crudely expressed, “Isn’t there a danger core museum visits might suffer if there is too much emphasis elsewhere” goes the thinking. The temptation is to answer “no” but the reality is that there may well be, in some instances, just such a danger. This however ignores the un-stated assumption of the primacy of a museum visit over other types of engagement where in fact I would argue no such primacy exists. Should we sacrifice museums to concentrate on outreach for example? The answer is of course not. Both approaches are equally valuable so long as the rationale underpinning them is at the same time valid, understood by those providing the services and can provide tangible benefits to those people each part of the museum seeks to serve.

The second part of this paper explores some real-life examples of how Leicestershire County Council Heritage and Arts learning staff have taken the idea of adding value and applied it to a diverse range of contexts outside the physical museum space.

Over the last four years working with children with SEN has been a strategic aim for our Service. At the beginning of this period and in response to our inexperience of working with children with SEN we offered a pilot programme of focused activity in a pre-selected school. For us the primary goal was to build up knowledge within the team and to develop an effective model of working. Through a partnership with the Autism Outreach Team from Leicestershire County Council Children and Young People’s Services we identified an Autism Unit within a local primary school to work with.

At the outset neither ourselves nor the teachers involved really knew what to expect. The teachers, it is fair to say, remained to be convinced over the merits of working with museums. “The children find history very difficult.” we were advised. We on the other hand simply did not know how the children, all of whom were at the severe end of the Autistic Spectrum would react. Going into the sessions the theme we chose was old and new, essentially comparing modern artefacts with their historical counterparts; in other words fairly standard fare for museums sessions in schools.

As the sessions progressed it became clear that the benefit to the children really went beyond developing concepts of old and new. Rather what really engaged and animated the children was the chance to experience objects far outside what they normally encountered in terms of materials, textures, appearance and sound. Almost all the children either had no spoken language or a very limited vocabulary but their reactions and behaviour indicated to the teachers a very high degree of inquisitiveness and concentration.

What did we learn from this? Children with Autism can sometimes be characterised by a rigidity of thinking and/or a reduced ability to project beyond their immediate thought processes. Engagement with the unfamiliar can assist in developing more flexible thinking, however for some children if the experience is too ‘new’ they can find such encounters threatening and intimidating. We found museum objects and certain types of museums (in our case a medieval manor house) can easily offer the appropriate combination of familiar and unfamiliar. We also felt that the sheer diversity and depth of resources museums can provide meant that we could add real value to the work of the Autism Unit in a way that other organisations could not.

As a result of this initial project the Autism Unit now use us regularly, including visiting museums, something they might have avoided before. Both the teachers and the professionals working within the Autism Outreach Team are now convinced advocates of the benefits of working with museums and understand the potential of museums to assist in their work. As partners they actively approach our team with new initiatives, most recently working with us to set up a Museum Club for young people with Autism. In short, the added value of the Museum’s contribution is recognised by both sides of the partnership.

From the starting point outlined above our work with SEN schools over the last four years has increased significantly and we now work closely with several specialist SEN schools in Leicestershire. More widely, given SEN attainment is priority for Leicestershire County Council, the work of museum staff in this area has given museums a specific relevance within the broader context of the Council as a whole.

The second example of where Leicestershire Museums add value is in the realm of supporting school literacy and literature development. The three programmes cited here again have been integrated into the work of other partners such as Library Services and the Literacy Team of Leicestershire County Council Children and Young People’s Services.
Write:Muse is a long standing museum initiative intended to promote literacy. It brings together writers and museums objects to demonstrate how imaginative word play using artefacts and works of art can be used to stimulate creative language. Over time the writers employed have developed a deep understanding of museum objects and combined this with their own specialist skills in communication to deliver a model of creative thinking and working to learning professionals from formal and informal education organisations.

The Artworks Service lends works of art to schools and community groups. In the past this Service has primarily been directed at increasing children’s understanding of, and access to, high quality works of art. Progressively however the collection is also being used to support literacy. Original art in schools can be problematic. Teachers sometimes feel they themselves lack sufficient knowledge of art to interpret the works for their pupils. By demonstrating to teachers the potential to focus on areas such as creative writing, or speaking and listening, those misgivings can be circumvented. Original art becomes a uniquely useful tool in unlocking emotional responses and generating a rich vein of associations. Children use their personal understanding of the world to both make sense of the work of art in front of them and to channel this response into their own creativity in spoken language and writing. The emphasis on original works is important as such works not only carry with them the idea of authenticity but also provides a sense of personal connection between the children and the artist. The approach has been so successful that through Artworks we have commissioned a collection of small sculptures, entitled ‘Held in the Hand’ aimed at inspiring creative writing.

Resource Box, another loan outreach service, also lends museum artefacts to schools. A recent initiative has been to work with a professional poet and writer to create “Character Boxes”. The boxes include several historical objects from the collection assembled as if belonging to a single person. The writer has then created a back-story for the fictitious owner of the objects, the first of these being a ‘spiv’ from the 1940s. Through handling and engaging with the objects, children fill out the character to create the basis for a piece of creative writing or even to create a new character. Again the particular qualities of working with objects are what make the activity so powerful and inspiring to the children.

The point of the three preceding examples is that museum collections are themselves tangible products of ideas, either through their own nature or through their categorisation, and it is when the original intent behind the objects collides with our own thoughts and experiences that the resulting impetus for creative expression can be fully exploited. When such interactions are mediated by writers, poets and artists, for whom creative expression is almost second nature, the impact on participants can be very powerful indeed. As with our work with children with SEN the programmes that support literacy align closely with current priorities within the Authority.

In conclusion, within any local authority, or indeed any publicly funded museum, there are many areas of activity that museums could conceivably address. In our own case however by understanding why we choose one area of work over another gives us a clear direction and clarity of purpose. The idea of adding value to the work of others also allows us as museum professionals the means to use limited resources effectively. The key to selecting opportunities is fully appreciating what we consider our museums to be ‘for’.

The caveat of course is that different museums may be ‘for’ different things. It is up to those professionals working in those museums to develop their own rationale for working and use that to create the most appropriate benefits for their customers, to add value, in their own ways.

I started this article by posing the question “What are museums for?”. In those moments when I may doubt my own answer I consider the hundred years or so of work in the field of museum learning that has gone into Leicestershire County Council Museums and I think of another question; “How will the future judge our work?”. I find it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Brian Kennedy - Head of Learning and Inclusion, Leicestershire County Council Arts and Heritage Service