GEM conference - day 3

Wednesday's conference venue was Norwich Castle Museum, offering delegates the chance to find out more about NMAS's work with audiences. The day started with keynotes from leading thinkers in the field of education. Prof Terry Haydn is Professor in Education at the University of East Anglia and course tutor for History on the secondary PGCE. His presentation focused on how to genuinely engage people in learning. He asked, how do you make learning powerful and engaging? How do you make the past relevant to people in the present, particularly young people – what use is the past to them? He pointed out a reality that we don’t often acknowledge in museum learning, which is that sites and collections can be intractable resources and create disastrous experiences when they’re not used well. Terry then posed the cookery book analogy: how many cookery books do you have in your kitchen, and what proportion of the recipes in them do you actually use?  The point being that it isn’t about having lots of objects, but about how you use the ones you’ve got. He showed us some great examples of powerful, memorable learning experiences that stick in the mind and reminded us that learning is a more complex process  (and teaching a less effective one) than people often think.  His advice to the museum learning sector was to acknowledge that times are hard and the situation we’re in isn’t fair, but to carry on, learn from each other, and use integrity, commitment, creativity and imagination. Those attributes have been very much in evidence over the past couple of days.


Prof Tom Schuller is director of Longview, a think tank promoting longitudinal and lifecourse research, and a visiting professor at Birkbeck and the Institute of Education. Tom has long experience in the lifelong learning sector and has been a key policy influencer: among other roles, he directed NIACE's review of lifelong learning that reported in 2009 and chaired the MLA Leading Museums group. His keynote illuminated some of the long term trends affecting the lifelong learning sector now and in the long term. He talked about our ageing society and gave some startling statistics: one in three babies born today will live to be 100, and by the time you and I get to the end of today our life expectancy will have increased by about 20 minutes. Makes me feel like taking a little 20-minute break. This trend has a range of implications: Tom asked the question, when does middle age actually start? In the context of recent debates over the retirement age, it’s a very pertinent question. The family is changing too: there is a broader range of family types around now than ever before. It’s the norm for today's children to grow up with all four grandparents (or 5, 6, 7 or 8) and the role of grandparents is becoming increasingly important as more parents work, childcare costs are high and people stay healthy through middle age. This means that the relationships between the generations, both at a personal level and in the macro social context, are shifting and Tom introduced the concepts of dependence and interdependence between generations. This matters for museums because it needs to inform our programming and our planning for the future. How can museum learning programmes foster intergenerational relationships in future?


Tom ended with 4 strategic challenges for our sector:

  • Can we broaden the range of partnerships we engage with outside of our comfort zone? Tom cited the excellent work that museums have done with young offenders and cited the alarming statistic that 2 in 3 boys whose fathers are in prison will end up going to prison themselves. How can museums use partnerships to extend successful working models?
  • Can we engage better with public value analysis and expand the range of measures we use for the work we do?
  • How do we achieve systematic and systemic sharing of the data we have? There are numerous small scale research and evaluation studies done in the sector but they’re not shared effectively to achieve a common understanding of what works and what doesn’t or to provide convincing evidence for policymakers.
  • How do museum professionals and volunteers continue to develop their skills, and what skills needs will they need in future? How many organisations have a sound understanding of their educational role and potential at board level?


The following discussion covered the issue of advocacy, linked to research and evidence.  There was consensus that museums need to be more adept at shouting about what they do, locally as well as on a wider platform, and knit together compelling data that demonstrates impact with the emotive case studies that convince policymakers of the value of our work. There’s clearly a need for better research, aggregation and sharing of data across the museum learning sector and this is something GEM will try to get to grips with as part of our forward planning process. Evaluation was described by one delegate as ‘the grisly elephant in the room’ on day 1 and clearly isn’t something we can ignore if we are to survive in the current policy environment.

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