Week 4 – Museum of London & Bromley Museum – Challenging your Museum audience

It is always hard after a treat to get back into routine, to go back to normal. After a high there naturally has to be a low. On my last project with the Museum of London I experienced it the week after I had been on my first archaeological dig. How do you beat scrabbling around in the dirt Indiana Jones style on my very own treasure hunt?

I am struggling to get excited by Week 4. After last week spent at the Museum of London archive (LAARC), learning about Roman funerary practice and seeing amazing chunks of London’s history in stone, being back at Bromley dealing with bags of broken Roman pot is not quite cutting the mustard.

One of the volunteers is having train trouble and hasn’t made it in yet, it is not a good start to the week. But as soon as I arrive at Bromley Museum my mood lifts, it is half term week, there will be lots of children and families getting stuck into craft activities today. It never fails to put a smile on my face when I see their artistic endeavours. I pop round to the education space to see what they will be up to today. There are tables laid out with pots and pots of enticing coloured sand, a visual feast of discovery. The coloured sand is to make Rangoli designs, usually made during Diwali and other Indian festivals. The brightly coloured patterns are sacred welcoming areas to the Hindu deities. They bring good luck and I feel my negativity ebbing away in their cheery glow.

Colours of discovery and fun to make Rangoli designs
Colours of discovery and fun to make Rangoli designs

I chat with the education officer, she is a bit worried about putting on a ‘non-traditional’ Halloween event. Many museum events I have seen advertised this half-term are full of ghouls, ghosts and monsters. Trying something a bit different may not be a success when parents expect pumpkins, spiders and ghost stories. She need not have worried. When I pop back in later, the space is a hive of activity, the hubbub of families, the special atmosphere that creative ‘hands-on’ work generates.

Lots of work went into these bright welcoming works of art
Lots of work went into these bright welcoming works of art

I am hoping to capitalise on the increased foot fall this week by bringing our work out into the open. After a couple of weeks working shut up in a room enjoying our own company I have decided to bring a table out into the Great Hall. We will be out on view, it is a gentle introduction to the art of public engagement. We are not running a hands on table or activities, but just carrying out our collections care of Roman artefacts in plain view. If we happen to entice a few children or families over to have a look it is a good place to start a conversation.

Out on view, nowhere to hide
Out on view, nowhere to hide

We do managed to ensnare a friendly chap, we take a few pieces out of the bags for him. He has brought his camera, he takes a few snaps. It is a great start, these artefacts from the Roman villa at Keston are normally shut up in boxes safe and secure in the Bromley Museum store. Most museums have such a limited amount of material out on display it is a pleasure to re-introduce these remnants of Roman life into the light.

We have caught a visitor, no missing him in that jacket
We have caught a visitor, no missing him in that jacket

I am taking the opportunity to be out on public view along with my artefacts. On Saturday I am running a “Meet the collection” hands on session with a number of finds from the Roman villa at Keston. I have only run one handling session before when I went into my daughters school and engaged two classes of Year 4 children (aged 8-9) with museum artefacts. Their teachers were present, I had back up, it was all under control. Saturday’s event worries me. I don’t feel I have all the answers, I worry I don’t have enough information or understanding to run this session.

I was full of confidence last week, we received a master class from our Museum of London guide. Apparently I only ever need to know three things about an object to share it with people, engage them in a conversation. With our Roman villa artefacts we only need to look at the label to be reminded of our 3 gems of information. We know location, context and material. This had kept me sustained all week, but by Saturday morning I panicked and started cramming information. Dates, locations, history and background.

Meet the collection! Come touch the Roman stuff
Meet the collection! Come touch the Roman stuff

I needn’t have worried, our Museum of London guide was right (well he does do this for a living). What I did know was enough, the session worked, the session went well. I had a really enjoyable time. I realised afterwards, cup of tea in hand, that the thing I enjoyed most was not reeling off information that I had learnt about these objects. I got the most enjoyment from asking my visitors questions. What do you think this is? What do you think this was used for? What do you think this is made of? Adults and in particular the children. I enjoyed challenging them. Getting them to think about these objects. Not necessarily what they knew or what they had learnt but more importantly what they could see. What was this thing in their hand? Was it heavy or light, delicate or chunky, rough or smooth?

A Roman bone hair pin or an olive pick for that evening soirée
A Roman bone hair pin or an olive pick for that evening soirée

We are all (me included) too passive in our learning. It is such a hard skill to question with our eyes, to interpret with our hands. It is an incredibly hard skill to teach and even harder to impart the confidence to simply ask a question however silly it may seem. To breed a fearlessness to give an answer, not based on what others say, or what others think, but on what you think and what you want to say. Even if that answer may seem silly or ill-informed.

Old money - New money. A little boy came in with £5 looking for a museum shop. He got to hold a Roman coin instead.
Old money – New money. A little boy came in with £5 looking for a museum shop. He got to hold a Roman coin instead.

Museums have to do this, they have to challenge their visitors. Challenge them through the events they put on, the exhibitions they open and the day-to-day activities in their galleries. What is best? To engage five families with Rangoli designs, helping them to learn about patterns, design, Hindu deities and Indian festivals or engage 30 families making Halloween ghosts?

Museums need to be brave, not always run events they know will be successful or popular. They have to really use the objects that sit in their stores. Who else has so many wonderful objects that can open pathways to learning? Using objects – a simple piece of broken pot, a flint, a coin; using them in an uncomplicated way, placing it in the hand of a visitor. The object immediately starts off a chain reaction of thoughts and feelings. But the visitor has to be challenged to bring those thoughts and feelings out into the open.

I challenged myself with this week, Week 4 of my project. I challenged my attitude and I challenged myself to run an engagement session I had little knowledge or experience of. I had an amazing time, I have grown in confidence and ability, I have learnt lessons.

Museums that challenge their visitors are museums that are making a difference. Changing a passive experience into an experience that is full of questions and answers and opportunities. That is the kind of museum I want to visit. Maybe it won’t always be the most popular route but it is certainly the route that will bring the most rewards for all.

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