Lorna Robinson and David Gimson on building a museum into the fabric of a busy, diverse secondary school in east Oxford
“Did an ancient Greek person really hold this? Wow!” Early on in our journey to create a museum throughout a busy comprehensive school, an eleven year old boy said this as he gasped in wonder, while holding a fifth century BC tetradrachm in his hand. The simple yet intense joy of holding an object that has been made and held by people from the past is something that everyone feels, whatever their background, level of education and particular abilities might be. It creates a powerful sense of connection and stirs imagination.
These experiences usually take place in visits to museums and historical sites, but could a school itself not also be a museum, a place where experiences of this sort happen daily in lessons, and are built into the fabric of the school, in corridors, classrooms and central spaces?
This was our goal as we started on the uphill task of creating a museum throughout the site of Cheney School, a large, diverse secondary school in east Oxford. We had begun with a small collection of ancient Greek and Roman artefacts, acquired through donations from running a classics education charity, The Iris Project, for more than a decade. Over time, this collection grew, largely through donations from universities, museums and individuals.
We applied for our Working towards Accreditation status from the Arts Council in May 2015. It took until March 2020, a week before the first national lockdown, to be awarded full Museum Accreditation. In those years, we learned more than we could ever have imagined about the challenges of turning a school site into a museum experience.
Growing Displays and Collections
In the past six years since we started on the path towards Accreditation, we have created displays across the site. In the school library, several cabinets can be found, with artefacts grouped according to themes chosen by sixth form students. Cabinets containing objects connected to categories ranging from Science and Medicine, Design and Technology, and Trade and Economy, to Maths and Computing, War and Weaponry and the History of Headington can be explored.
Just outside the main reception, there are cabinets themed on Protest and Power. Artefacts from the Women’s Suffrage, Black Lives Matter and Abolition Movements can be viewed by everyone who comes into the school. Each cabinet has a set of signs with QR codes which lead to individual pages on our Rumble Museum site where students, staff, and visitors can find out more. Some of these items have voice-overs recorded by experts especially for the museum.
In the school canteen, we have large boards which introduce the long and fascinating history of the school, and we are creating displays of old uniforms, school books, and other items donated to us by alumni. We have been running oral history afternoons, where students meet visitors, record the stories they bring, and photograph objects they have brought. These events are very rewarding for both the people bringing their stories, and the students hearing the stories and meeting visitors with experiences to share.
Inside the Curriculum
One of the most exciting recent projects we have worked on has been a collaboration with David Hibbert and the Weald School. Together we have created a collection of objects from the History of Medicine, designed to support the GCSE History unit. As well as a striking display of original items at Cheney itself, we have created a set of replica items, which have been loaned to the Weald. Both schools have been piloting the use of objects within this unit, and exploring their ability to create a sense of period and to aid ‘world-building’.
We were recently given a beautiful collection of items from Africa, and we are working with a local expert, Natty Mark Samuels, to create a set of learning resources around these objects for use in the curriculum. The National Lottery Heritage Fund is generously funding this project.
These have been a few examples of the many projects and displays we have been creating. In the coming years, we hope to continue growing our collection and displays, and to ensure that every student who joins the school has the opportunity to explore a wide range of objects as part of their lessons across subject areas.
There are many ways of using these displays and objects that we have yet to discover, and we are very excited to continue this journey of building a museum into the fabric of a busy, diverse state school.
Find out more on the Rumble Museum website.
Dr Lorna Robinson
Founder and Director, The Rumble Museum
Mr David Gimson
Museum Lead, Cheney School
Published 12 January 2022