‘I’ve heard of pop-up shops, but never a pop-up museum!’ my colleagues laughed when I first mentioned the concept. When I explained how students had created such a pop-up at Melbourne Museum, and then again at their school, they were as delighted as the judges of the Museums and Galleries National Awards (MAGNA) in 2016.
The Building Our School Museum entry both delighted and inspired the MAGNA judges because they understood that a significant collaboration between a museum and a school had occurred; one which was both beneficial to the students involved and the museum that hosted them. What did the children learn in the process of creating their museum and what did Museum Victoria learn from assisting them with that process?
As with many projects, the evolution of this idea was both serendipitous and iterative, building on the good will and enthusiasm of a creative primary school teacher and an innovative museum educator,both of whom had the desire to enrich students’ learning. Princess Hill Primary School is also an innovative school that encourages and enables genuine enquiry and community engagement in its curriculum. On this occasion the grade 34 teachers posed a big question for their students to explore as their enquiry question for the year: What makes us part of the community?
The process of dialogue around this question gave rise to further questions about how we identify and curate important knowledge. The concept of museums as institutions that are involved in cultural production and preservation emerged from this enquiry.Cameron Hocking, then Digital Education Co-ordinator for Museum Victoria, stepped in to provide assistance. For the students to test their theories about what museums are and what they do, required them to have close contact with museums and the people who work in them. From those first contacts a desire to replicate the practices of the museum in curating and presenting knowledge took shape.
The students visited each of the three museums of Museum Victoria – Melbourne Museum, Immigration Museum and Scienceworks – to gain an understanding of how Museum Victoria tells the story of their world, from the Sciences to the Humanities, from technological innovation to the deep knowledge of the First Peoples of Australia. They talked to Cameron on site and via Google hangouts to find out more about how museums work and why they tell stories in the way that they do. They had architects visit their school to talk about the process of building design; an exhibition designer from Museum Victoria talk about his approach to visual storytelling; they went out into the community and looked at the cultural organisations in their local area; they researched other museums in the world through Google Cultural Institute, and began to think about what they wanted to research in their teams. Each group identified an aspect that they wanted to explore in their community – topics as broad as technology, plants, minerals and rocks, living creatures, parks, sports, architecture, Italian culture, fashion, music, drawing, painting,recycling, conservation, food, friendship and the history of their school –the topic chosen based on the interest and aptitude of the students. They then went out into their community to find the answers to their questions.
The students constructed displays to tell the story of their research, using some of the ideas they had researched in other museums.They wanted to know what museum people might think of their creations, and so the idea of a pop-up museum was conceived. The 120 students were divided in two groups with each research team responsible for carrying their precious cargo on the tram to Melbourne Museum. There they transformed three education activity rooms into a prototype of their school museum. Two pop-up museums were created over consecutive days. Staff from across the museum were invited to visit and provide feedback, and many came, especially science and humanities curators and exhibition designers and managers.
It was heartening to see museum staff engage deeply and critically with the students’ ideas and provide constructive written feedback on the sheets provided by the student curators, who listened intently to the advice offered. The CEO at that time, Dr Patrick Green AO, spent an hour thoroughly exploring student exhibits and testing their interactive displays. The generous support of museum staff encouraged students to tackle a second draft of their ideas.
The students were proud of their work and appreciated the staff and parent visits. Mia said "I felt really important to have so many museum people come and look at our exhibits."
Another student, Loula, reflected on the value of the day: "It was a great for others to see the work of students and that they can do more if they put their minds to it."
Classroom teacher Melinda Cashen said:
"It was such an authentic experience for the children. They have built up a great relationship with the museum over the year and they felt that the effort they have put into building their own exhibits was worthwhile and valued. It allowed the children to see the process of curating and how a museum works in a real context, and they really appreciated the feedback they received, making changes to their exhibits when they returned to school."
There was also benefit for the staff at Museum Victoria. Rebecca Carland, Curator of History Collections posted a number of tweets on her visit to the pop-up museum and reflected:
“I was delighted by how engaging the pop-up Museum was. The science displays made me re-think how we write for younger audiences, some of them really nailed it. And the use of digital tech in one of the history displays was seamless and so professional. I think we met a couple of our future colleagues.”
The students reviewed the feedback they had received and revised some of the exhibits. The biggest change was that they decided that the five classrooms that housed 5 groups of year 3 and 4 students should become thematic galleries where exhibits that had similar content were displayed. Five classrooms became one museum. The exhibition catalogue was launched with the opening of the school museum. Student docents guided visitors through the galleries and into the school grounds, where there were further exhibits – Trees!
A number of museum staff visited the school museum and were very positive about the potential of this kind of collaboration with schools. While not all of these students will become museum workers they better understand how knowledge and culture are produced and curated in museums. The museum has learned that its role asa place of lifelong learning goes beyond the content and experiences it makes available through exhibitions and online resources. The work of museum scientists, historians, designers, creative producers and curators provides a model of cross disciplinary collaboration that few organisations can offer. As a workplace, Museum Victoria is home to a diversity ofjob descriptions that range from the practical and creative to the scholarly.Our work in making such museum practices visible and accessible as learning experiences to diverse audiences has only just begun.
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