During the last year our learning and discovery team has seen quite a few changes - as have so many others - not least with members of staff on maternity leave and on furlough. When we locked down in March 2020 we went from a packed calendar of in-house school visits and outreach sessions to nothing at all within the space of a week. It is honestly one of the strangest things, to go from doing your job every day, to just a full stop. The museum has been awfully empty and we have particularly noticed it in education with no school groups in. The hustle and bustle of a school arriving, the energy and the way they can fill the building with their excitement is electric. Hopefully we can get back to that soon, but for now, like many heritage and museum sites we have had to completely change the way we work to combat the ‘new normal’. You will see from this blog, we did not want this to be a wasted opportunity and decided to use our time wisely.
It would be fair to say that there is no better feeling than driving up to a school or community centre in a fire engine, seeing the looks of amazement and wonder from children, teachers and community groups alike is such a joy. But arriving with an exciting vehicle is not all we have here at NESM. We wanted that wow factor and feeling without necessarily taking a fire engine along for the ride, and so we’ve used the last year, when we’ve been allowed to of course, to create a new and exciting learning offer, focusing on outreach but also giving our well-loved in-house workshops a makeover too.
First let’s start with our new Topic Takeovers; outreach sessions in partnership with the Past Presents Ltd. These all day events let children and their teachers become immersed in their topic, whether it's People Who Help Us, the Great Fire of London or the Blitz. Each day offers something different. They can become real life heroes in our People Who Help Us session and learn about history’s heroes too. For the Great Fire of London session they can travel back to London in 1666, fighting the fire and trying to rebuild London in the aftermath. Finding out what it was like to be on the Home Front during the Blitz in World War II is another of these Topic takeover sessions that we offer. It’s the closest experience to travelling back in time – and a lot of fun too. We have actually managed to take our Great Fire of London session into a school and the children loved it so much, during our morning session, not one of them asked to go to the toilet (believe you me, no mean feat when working with children!) The adults were also impressed; one teaching assistant even hurried back from a meeting just so she would not miss out. So everyone was completely engrossed in the day.
Another way we bring the museum to schools is through our loan boxes, but we decided these needed a revamp too. A loan box contains a collection of original and replicated items from our archives plus activity ideas to stimulate learning and gain a greater understanding of your particular time period or topic. We wanted to make sure the majority of objects in our boxes were from our collection, rather than reproduction and worked closely with our curator Holly to pick the perfect artefacts for each of our topics. Luckily not too many arguments were had, although the less said about hoses the better.
It may seem like the loan box is the be all and end all but it isn’t; there is also a lot of documentation to go with it. Loan Box admin ranges from deaccessioning objects (bringing them over to the dark side that is the handling collection) to all the activities available for learners to interact with the objects. There are also some new fun and exciting Covid documents, as well as a signing in and out sheet. Luckily, our Rosie loves creating a table for organisational purposes. We have a main activity booklet that can be used for all topics, but also individual activities for each loan box. These range from packing an evacuees’ suitcase to writing with a quill pen; cooking Woolton Pie to matching the emergency services gear to the right rescue situation.
Now we are back in the fire engine; not literally, but moving on to our vehicle outreach sessions, A Day in the Life. Again we have changed these, so that now they are more about the vehicle and the emergency services personnel on board of it. We don’t just have a fire engine on offer but also a police car, an ambulance or a World War II fire engine. During the morning or the afternoon you get to alternate between a look over the vehicle with equipment handling and dressing up and then go into a learning session inside to hear about the ‘day in the life’ of your chosen emergency service. We make it a bit more than just about the vehicle we bring, using activities and stories to help engage children in learning about the emergency services and also what to do when there is a real life emergency.
During lockdown we (not just education of course, but everyone at the museum) have updated our facilities and many of our displays, so they are now either new or more accessible than ever before. In preparation for not just visitors returning but also school groups, we are really hoping to get our in-house workshops up and running soon. We’ve updated these and also added something extra; a costumed character to answer from the horse’s mouth from someone who was ‘there’ and great to do ‘hot seating’ exercises with. Characters include Samuel Pepys, the Queen of Heeley, a 1900 firefighter or domestic staff based at the station, an ARP warden or even someone from our modern emergency services. So Paul will be donning wigs and lacing himself into a corset (not sure what Rosie will be doing, but sure she’ll be getting dressed up to). It is not just for a fun dress up, although it may seem that way, but to help immerse children in their topic and get them to interact with the character, asking those burning questions they may not be able to during our normal workshops.
So as you can see, we’ve had a quite busy few months and hopefully we’ll be able to welcome school groups through our doors again or entertain them with our ever-expanding outreach offer. Get in touch with us if you want to know more!
Rosie Norrell and Paul Watson
Learning and Discovery co-ordinators