Making the case: the value of heritage education

On Thursday 6th September I attended the last day of the GEM (Group for Education in Museums) conference at the Xfi Centre at the University of Exeter. The theme of the conference was Making the case: the value of heritage education and day three was about HOW to make the case. Exeter was quite unlike I’d imagined it to be, very sparse and sleepy (and extremely hilly!).

The day began with a keynote address from Sandra Stancliffe from English Heritage, who looked at the fragile and often difficult to negotiate relationship between schools and museums. She claimed that over the years, education hadn’t really changed that much (not sure how much I agree with that!) and that education and heritage run parallel with each other, only occasionally intercepting, the question she tried to answer was how to improve that interface. She said that museums and heritage sites need to move away from providing an ‘Argos catalogue’ of educational sessions towards more bespoke and tailored services, which isn’t to say that every class from every school need be catered to individually. Museums need to make the case for being involved in the co-production of local area-based curricula, an example she used was a school not using a nearby (and free!) Norman Castle because they “weren’t doing the Normans”, Sandra’s advice: “Do the Normans then!” The National Curriculum tried to move away from thinking in terms of block subjects towards more interdisciplinary fluidity. Chris Watkins of the IOE (my own haunt) uses a Turkey metaphor, apparently after being locked in a shed for a long time, once released, the Turkeys will not necessarily run straight out. Is Michael Gove’s enforced “freedom” for teachers a good thing? Will some run and others stay? Schools, for many heritage sites, can make the most long term impact, and the relationships need to be nurtured and mutual.

Sue Wilkinson, a museums and heritage consultant then spoke about bids, in a talk called Building and Advocating a successful case for heritage. While I’m not currently involved in making bids (thankfully, it sounds like a minefield!) there were still some points I found interesting that I have stored for future reference, she said that many unsuccessful projects are clearly written around a bid, where really the bid needs to come from the project. Bidders need to prove a need for their project, show awareness and understanding of the local, regional and national context, show evidence of their track record and make sure that their proposed project is rooted in partnerships (with schools, other heritage sites, local communities etc.) She concluded by saying that the four Ps to remember when preparing a bid, are Project, Partnerships, Process and Presentation.

The next part of the morning was split into three optional breakout sessions, which all included a practical element. One of these was my breakout session called Making our cultural practice more genuinely inclusive: queer and feminist approaches. I split the session into two, looking first at abstract ideas of queer (ie: queering the canon, I made reference to the timeline at the Tate Modern and the frieze at the Wellcome) and then a critical look at some examples of including LGBT narratives, including the British Museum, the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, Birmingham Art Gallery and many others. For the practical session, I returned to a more abstract version of queer and asked the delegates to think about how they could use the site of Gibside Hall in education. Gibside Hall was once the property of Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800), known widely as the ‘unhappy countess’ was once the richest and most sought after heiress in England. Her tumultuous marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney is well documented, but the National Trust, who have owned Gibside since 1965 fail to acknowledge the less salubrious elements of her life, including her three self-administered abortions and her interest to a feminist audience due to her education and her attitudes to sex, marriage and children. The activity was an informal discussion and a sharing exercise, some of the ideas that came up were about looking at recruiting artists as ‘problem solvers’, creating projections onto the ruined site, using drama and hot seating, incorporating contemporary voices, drawing upon her royal links, and using her as a focal point for asking questions about abortion, which removes it from visitors having to reflect personally about what is still a very divisive and controversial subject. An interesting point made was that in interpreting the site, we must be wary not to allow her to become defined by her abortions. I then showed the group my own interpretation of the site, which can be found here. I will probably blog about my Gibside Hall project at greater length in the near future. I hope that this session proved as a useful introduction to queer and feminist approaches and helped the museum professionals present to think differently about the narratives that are absent in their own institution. I’m really grateful for all of the interesting contributions in the session.

In the afternoon I attended two workshops, the first was The case for support – how museums can help vulnerable young people by Jo Ward, the newly appointed deputy director for GEM. Working with young people is something I haven’t looked into much (partially due to my fear of children), but Jo identified a group that I had never really considered, which were those vulnerable children in the transitionary period between primary and second school. She spoke about many ways that museums and heritage sites can support them during this potentially difficult time. She spoke about transition summer schools, and showed us some animations that children attending had made, she said that animation making was a great way of empowering and involving young people, as it is easy to do, and everyone can have a role, she recommended it as a great tool for learning new skills. She also mentioned the arts award, and how schools sometimes embed it into the curriculum, it requires self-directed learning and builds skills and is a well recognised award, and apparently an awful lot of fun to be involved with. The key is knowing what support schools need and being able to offer it.

The next workshop was about Sustainable online learning programmes by Samantha Elliott from Bolton Library & Museum Service. Samantha showed us some of the great online tools that had been developed in partnership with d2 Digital, specifically around the World War II and the Egyptian collections. I particularly liked the World War II scrap book, which made use of oral histories and is an engaging visual way of bringing the collections to a virtual audience. They can also use the scrapbook template for future interpretation of other collections.

This was a great networking opportunity and my first event as a member of GEM. It was a real honour to be asked to deliver a breakout session and was my first time of presenting my research so far to a non-LGBT audience. I look forward to continuing to share and learn from the experts in GEM. Look out for my write-up in the next volume of the JEM. (The pictures are from my breakout session and are featured here with kind permission of Susannah Stevenson from GEM)

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