Day 4 – Museum of Bath Architecture

Today we met Polly, the education officer for the Bath Preservation Trust. She coordinates learning programs across several of their sites, including the Museum of Bath Architecture. 

Our goal for today was to understand how to plan learning experiences for different audiences and to create a structured plan for a specific group with clear learning objectives. 

Firstly a bit about the museum. It was not what I was expecting for a museum of architecture, it is quite small and housed in the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel. So it’s an unusual environment for a museum but it’s been done quite well. The museum coveres the construction of the buildings of Bath literally from the ground up. It goes systematically through the style, design, materials and building techniques of the Georgian architecture. It is housed in a Methodist chapel, which was active until 1981, the Trust acquired it in 1983 and did some restoration work before opening it as a heritage centre. 

Now on to the learning programs. Polly gave us a bit of an outline on what programs she offers at the museum and a crash course on learning theory. Much of what she designs is informal education, non-directed drop in activities which people can do on their own while they are in the museum. This can include stencilling activities showing different plasterwork patterns or a money tree asking people to design their own bank notes and hang them on a tree. There are also building blocks and lego available for people to experiment with construction and building their own versions of Georgian buildings. 
Polly was very keen on the value of experiential learning, and I completely agree with her. Hands on learning I find much more effective and engaging than formal classroom learning. So Poly tries to create meaningful physical activity which engages people’s minds and hands. There is also the theory of Multiple Intelligences which caters for different learning types using different senses. A good museum will try to cover all the senses to engage all learning types. 

Polly also discussed the restrictions in place in current formal education and how museums can break that mould.  By encouraging creativity and not placing boundaries on children museums can expand a child’s imagination and encourage creative thinking instead of just memorisation. This applies to adults as well, community engagement is about allowing people to access the collection in a way which works for them.

I often feel that as museum staff we can get so caught up in trying to communicate the messages we want people to learn that we don’t stop and think about what is valuable to the visitors. They might want something completely different out of a museum visit than what we think, which is why I’m such a fan of co-production in museums. Especially in community museums, when I’d love to see the content and style of the museum being driven by input from the community. I could go on and on about co-production but I’ll save that for another time. So I was happy to get into a group that was trying to work out how to design a learning program for a an art therapy group of adults with mild to moderate mental illnesses. 

Our plan was mostly to create a safe and comfortable learning environment for the group while giving them a chance to explore something new. We were also playing with the concept of co-production and allowing the group to be as self-directed as possible in what they wanted to achieve and having the museum responsive to their ideas. 

Our group designed a series of 4 workshops for two hours per week, over four weeks. Initially we would send out a newsletter or welcome letter prior to the first workshop explaining the structure of the classes, materials available, environment they would be coming in to and introducing the staff that they would meet. This was to alleviate any fears of an unfamiliar environment and not knowing appropriate museum behaviour for those who are unfamiliar with museums. From there each class would begin with a half hour talk from a specialist on one aspect of Georgian architecture. For example the first week would be an overview of the architectural style, the next week could be stone masonry followed by plasterwork. The half hour talk is hopefully, not going to overwhelm anyone with too much information all at once and the remaining hour and half is to allow them to hopefully get inspired and start thinking about what kind of artwork they’d like to create. We would apply for additional funding so that we could supply a range of high quality art materials, giving them as much choice as possible for what medium they would like to work in. We’d supply standard materials including, paints, pastels, pencils and clay as well as more unconventional things like lego or mechano in case anyone wanted to create a 3-D artwork. 

At the end of the four weeks we would have a small exhibition to showcase the works. This would have a formal opening enevent and would serve as a way to validate their skills and show the group they are valued, hopefully providing a boost in confidence and self-esteem. 

While part of our objective for these workshops was based around informing the group about the history and style of Georgian architecture it was mostly about creating a safe environment where they could form social connections and feel valued. It wasn’t necessarily about what many people see a museum’s role to be (teaching people history) but about what the group needed from the museum. 

I think this is a focus we could do with embracing even more and use it to influence how we design programs and exhibitions for different groups. I think it will help to create a more meaningful connection with visitors. If I had more time I’d go into the Happy Museum Project being run by Derby Museums here in the UK. They have been doing some great things for co-production and I recommend you check them out if you have time.

An extra bonus for today is that Amy Frost set us up with some stonecarvi g to have a go at. Bath stone is surprisingly soft and the mallets and chisel are pretty unwieldy so we mostly just gouged holes in the stone. But the main thing is we had a lot of fun doing it! 


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