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Encouraging risk-taking in museums

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Peter Mahony and Karolina Novak from MAAS talk about encouraging risk-taking in museums with a series of design experiments around the development of a new learning program for the Museum’s Discovery Centre.   

Hw do you encourage risk-taking in museums and what did they learn along the way?

Peter: Good morning, everybody. I’d like to acknowledge the people of the Kulin nation and the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet, and pay respects to their elders past and present and, through them, to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on our behalfs.

So we’re going to take you down from the epic scale of the last presentation to a fairly kind of one-to-one personal scale now, and have a look at a programme that we’ve been running with schools around a new project for our museum. This is the shape of the talk that we’re going to go through.

So over on the far side, Powerhouse Museum in Sydney Observatory are located close to the inner city and Darling Harbour area and the city area of Sydney, and the museum’s Discovery Centre is in the north-west suburbs of Sydney. It’s a storage facility, it’s about 40km north-west, we’ve just opened up a new 9,000 square metre collection store, and there’s deep storage tours available. The whole thing is built on a visible storage basis, and it’s a partnership project. So the land and the storage facility had been owned and operated by the museum for many, many years, and then we’ve brought on the Australian Museum and Sydney Living Museum, formed this partnership with them and the new store, we now have shared storage facilities there.

As part of this reopening, as a result, there was an opportunity for the Learning Team to re-imagine what we were doing and the type of programming that we could offer our audiences in that part of Sydney, and so we really also saw it as an important opportunity to reconnect with that audience, because there had been a hiatus of about two-and-a-half to three years where there hadn’t been any programmes running there at all, so we took it as an opportunity to experiment. And, of course, like all good educators, we’re building on the shoulders of giants, and some of the things which have informed this project I’ll just kind of pay some homage to. There’s a particular paper there of Elaine’s from 2013 which was very influential for us, really talking about the role and potential for museums as school changes to meet the needs of our society.

Going forward, it’s not just museums that are thinking about this, of course. Peter Hutton is the Principal of Templestowe College. His TED Talk, “What if students controlled their own learning?” is a very inspiring, as is the school – a very inspiring place. It really kind is rewriting the book on how you do comprehensive high school education, and this stuff, of course, as educators in this room would know, and everyone would know, is blossoming and flowering everywhere. So Will Richardson, now working here with Bruce Dixon on modern learners, just opening a new podcast channel from their website.

The museum is also involved in a very large ARC linkage project, and it runs out of Melbourne University’s Graduate School for Education, so it’s called the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change ARC. It’s a three-year project. So it’s really looking about the complex and interrelated systems that work between the built space and the behaviours of both staff and visitors in the museum. It’s a really fantastic and inspiring project for us to be a part of, especially as we think of the new museum, which our State Government has made an announcement last year to build a new museum in Parramatta.

In Sydney, in the education world, people like Greg Whitby, who’s the CEO of the Parramatta Diocese Catholic System and the New South Wales Department of Education are also working on how do we push this forward? How do we get more progressive, more learner-centred experiences in our schools? So translating that into our work, one of the tactics that we’ve picked up on is from the latest edition of the Journal of Museum Education, and this idea of museum footnotes is very intriguing and we’re running with this. It’s the idea that if you read a journal or a book and there are footnotes at the bottom, you can go to the footnote and dive in a little deeper into the point that was made and the background on it. So this idea is actually recognising that through the process of developing exhibitions, there are many things like that. They’re buried a little bit, they’re not on display, but there would be decisions made, there would be conflicts perhaps at times, there are dilemmas that would need to be resolved by the team.

In a footnote perhaps, there’s the opportunity to bring that dilemma to light and to build it into an education programme experience, and therefore provide an opportunity for the visitors to that exhibition through the education programme into that space of thinking about what actual choices have been made. This is a construction. There are people who have feelings and attitudes and ideas who are behind this, and what would you do if you were them, having to face that dilemma?

Of course, we’re very keen on the Harvard Graduate School for Education’s Visible Thinking routines and we’re very keen on See, Think, Wonder, What Makes You Say That, and the application of these strategies for learners in the gallery spaces. I’ve got some of our bookmarks down here if anyone’s interested. Come down and pick up our propaganda. And some co-design experiments, I’m going to hand over to [Carolina] to lead this next part.

Karolina: Okay. Hi, everyone. So as Peter mentioned, we had this new opportunity with the Discovery Centre reopening. So the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences has the three venues currently: the Powerhouse Museum, the Observatory and now the Castle Hill site, and Powerhouse Centre Observatory have a really well-established learning programme, but the MDC really provided an opportunity for us to do something different, also because it’s like this open storage sort of concept. So we really wanted to take a different tack. And underpinning all of this was this idea for us of how that can be a resource, actually, a learning resource for the learning community in that area. So we reached out to some local schools and really just said, “What do you want? What can we do for you? How can we be a resource for you? How could you utilise a museum in your curriculum and in your particular learning programmes?” And so these are the four projects that we ended up working on. So these are the five schools, actually, and I’ll go into them in a little detail after I’ve had a sip of water, just a second.

So the first one I’m going to talk about is Baulkham Hills, a North Public School, and the teacher here that was interested in working with us with actually an English as an Additional Language support teacher who had a particular Year Five class of varying literacy abilities, and they were working on a unit of work in Geography on Macquarie Island, and she really wanted to get the kids to curate an exhibition on Macquarie Island. So she was, like, “How can you help us with that? Can you talk to us about what a museum is, what a museum does, what a curator does and that might help the kids with that project that we already have programmed in our curriculum?”

So the first thing we did is we prepared a workshop with them where we put it to the kids, “What is a museum?” and we spent about an hour, a couple of colleagues and I, together with this Year Five class, and these were some of their responses. So the key concepts here that came out were that a museum is a place, it looks after special things and it shares them. And a key concept as well that we really spoke about and the kids were really fascinated by, is that a museum, when it decides to keep something, makes a special promise to keep it and look after it forever. And so this concept of forever time was really fascinating for the kids as well.

So the second thing that we did is we then put that back on them and said, “Well, if you had to pick a special object from your life to put in a museum to keep forever, what would you pick?” and from there we went through and did a series of activities with them that were all based in Literacy. So first they created little object tags, like, registration tags for their objects, and then we went on to creating object statements for each object, and after that we invited them to come and visit the MDC. So in these images here, it’s not actually yet open to the public, so it was still being installed, so they got this special sneak peek, sneak preview. And in that photo, they were all sitting on the floor, they’re all holding their object statements that they had written and brought with them, and it was so beautiful. We were so blown away, we sort of wondered, “Well, what can we do with this? What can we do next?” And from here, the project started to really evolve organically and we were really responding to the needs of the kids and the needs of the teachers that we were working with.

So what we did is we decided that in the spirit of what they had come up with as far as, “What is a museum?” we would come up with a way to share this with their community. And so we helped them develop a website. So we created this website together. This is a photo from the Special Object Workshop where they created their objects tags, they all wore the little registration glove, and this text over here … so all of the text in this project was produced by the kids. And here’s a couple of examples, so I probably won’t play you all of these, but there’s a couple of audio grabs, because what we did as well as including their writing, we also got each child to describe their object and talk about what made it special. Hello? Is it going to work for me? No. Alright.

Peter: Is it possible for you … is that Gwen? Is it possible for you to click Play for us?

Karolina: Yeah, I’m not sure that this is the –

Peter: Okay, it’s the wrong deck?

Karolina: Yeah. That’s alright.

Peter: It still should play.

Karolina: The audio’s not in that one. Anyway, so here are some of the stories of the objects. You don’t need to read them all now, but … whoopsie. Ooh, I’ve done something … I’m going to stop pressing buttons now. Thank you. Thank you, Gwen. Alright. Okay, here we go. So you are welcome to have a look at these at your convenience and listen to the kids’ voices, because that’s actually what makes this project so beautiful, and it’s also one of the things that the teachers fed back to us was so rich and special about the project.

Okay, so then we had our opening of the Discovery Centre and all of the schools that we were working with, as on pilot programmes, were invited and in this photograph on the right are some members from 5W, because what we actually managed to do was find a space in the MDC where we actually could display their class collection. So because they had done such a beautiful job, we really fought for having an area where we could display this and share it with the public. And we had an open weekend where they gave a curator talk, and during our fun, ubiquitous badge-making activity, they produced these little badges that say, “I’m a curator.”

So the next step for us, actually, because we did create a display, is we had a video conference with this class where we created a display and use agreement together with them. So in the centre there is one of our amazing registrars, Lucy, and that’s my colleague, Mark, as well, and so we’d all worked together with these kids over the course of the term when they were working on this project, and here they actually fed back to us, “Well, if you’re going to have our stuff, these are the terms.” So these were some of the ideas that they came up with. You can see Mark’s got his laptop there and he’s taking those notes. So from this we actually put together a contract and they put down everything down to, like, insurance values on each of their objects.

So what about Macquarie Island, because that was the whole point at the beginning, right? We went through this evolutionary process and at the end of the term actually they did create their Macquarie Island exhibition, and then they invited us to come back and see it. So this part, they actually did independently from the work that we’d done together, including story time for Kindergarten of books related to Macquarie Island. So I’ll just … the audio’s not there either, so I’ll just quickly … so in that previous one, they had actually created a treasure hunt, so it was like an interactive display. And in this one, they’re showing a model that they made of Mawson’s Hut. And they kept stressing that the best part about museums is when they’re interactive and you find out the information for yourself, so that’s why they created the treasure hunt for the Kindies, which was actually about a wildlife programme in Macquarie Island, so they had their information and then … okay.

So another school we worked with – I’m going to go over time with that – is St Angela’s. So obviously not every school in this area wanted to have, like, a big, long, bespoke kind of unwieldy programme … with people who knock over bottles. So St Angela’s School, actually, was very concrete and specific. They said, “Look, we actually have this issue with Stage Two in the History curriculum where we don’t know how to teach the concept of primary and secondary sources and, as a museum, maybe you can help us with that.” So we developed a workshop called History Mystery, and we based it on some items in our collection. And so down the bottom here you can see a little image of an envelope which contained a note card. It was actually a sort of business card of Ada Lovelace, which was given to Charles Babbage, and so this was the starting point for this workshop, and then the kids had to piece together the story, kind of going through a couple of our collection objects.

Another project we worked on is Cumberland High School and Carlingford West Public School, so Cumberland High School actually came back to us and said, “We’re having a problem with one of our feeder schools. We really want to develop a good relationship with them. Is there something we could do together?” And so they proposed that one of their Year Seven classes would work together with a Year Five class from Carlingford West to create a kids’ audio guide for the Discovery Centre, and because we sort of had approached them asking what they wanted, at that point we were like, “Okay, we’re going to have to do this.” So what we did is we got them all in on an orientation day, the kids all went around the space. Again, this was prior to open, so we had to go through various things to make that safe and to make sure everybody was comfortable, and then at the end we had a session where the Year Fives and the Year Sevens – who had met each other for the first time on this day – split into groups and started to think about what are the interesting things to kids their age that they’d seen, and how they could develop scripts from that. Coincidentally, around this time our digital studio team had started working on an app for MAAS, so this project is actually currently ongoing. We’re speaking to our digital studio team about how we could potentially incorporate the work that these young people are doing into this app.

And the last project that came about was Crestwood High School. This is the closest geographically high school to the MDC, and we heard from a Year 11 English teacher who was looking for an enrichment project for her Year 11 advanced class, and they were doing a unit of work on dystopian worlds, looking at Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, and Children of Men. So they were really immersed in this idea of the past and the future, and the legacy of a society and the legacy of social decisions and how those things evolve. So the idea of a museum really fitted in really well with them conceptually and what they were doing.

So we invited them as well and we got to give them a bit of a backstage tour. This is one of our stores at the MDC, and the kids came up with this idea that they would create a museum exhibition about their lives as young people now from the perspective of the future, so from the Year 2116. And here’s a photo of them collecting some of their objects and working at school to compile all this together, and we took some photographs. You can see there the little lap box. And they also got a small area in the MDC to display their objects, which were focused on communication technologies mostly. So what these kids were really interested in was that they had realised through this unit of work the scale of change as far as technology goes for them. So even since they were in Year Seven, so much had changed, so many things had become obsolete, and they’d found themselves explaining to, like, their younger siblings things that were no longer around. And they were really fascinated by that.

So they did this beautiful creative writing around the objects that they’d chosen. This beautiful sort of speculative fiction writing from the perspective of 2116 on very ordinary objects from now, and they created this story about how there are archaeologists who have unearthed this high school that was abandoned in 2016. And so we put it all together and helped them create a little catalogue publication for their display, and so here’s a couple of images. I’ll just zoom through them because we’re running out of time. We’ve got a couple of these if you’d like to have a look later on.

And they even independently collated all of this information and put it together in a Tumblr because this was the communication tool of their generation that they felt was appropriate for them to share with their peers.

Peter: So just to wrap it up, taking a risk can sometimes deliver unexpected outcomes, so … Gwen, is that time the right time?

Female Voice: Yes.

Peter: Oh, awesome, okay. It’s not so bad. An AVC Splash converting this project into an online project using their portal, and it will become a national competition to encourage other young people to kind of use this approach, to encourage writing and interpretation of objects of importance and interest. And we would never have kind of thought of approaching Splash about that, so sometimes taking the risk can deliver things you don’t expect.

So for us, some of the takeaways. So we’ve done quite a lot of evaluation, actually, and we’ve done some depth interviews with the teachers and we’ve surveyed the kids and we’ve had a lot of, like, very useful feedback. So, in general, to summarise that in a couple of sentences, like, teachers are very … they respond super-positively to the idea that the museum is open to collaborate with them. So this is very interesting for us because we can’t actually collaborate with everyone, but nevertheless, not everyone is knocking on our door to collaborate. But the idea that we would be there and open to a conversation has proven to have a lot of useful carriage and positive messaging. And teachers also have identified the opportunity for this to be a way to get project-based learning style activities and authentic and real-world outcomes into their programme, which is something that they sometimes struggle with.

So there have been some points of resistance which we met along the way. For everyone it’s time and the disruption for schools as well, because normally it’s very safe and easy when everyone’s in the classroom and you’ve got your timetable, so coordinating and planning all of that kind of stuff took a lot of time and effort and care, and there was some hesitation from some schools about the open-endedness of the project as well.   Like, with the Lost Childhood, they were kind of, like, into that journey, but maybe some of the other schools were a bit sort of suspicious, actually, of what was going to happen and would it be worthwhile for them, for the effort? And the teachers reported constantly about the rigidity of the school structure, so even though they said, “This has been really worth it for us,” that’s been a real barrier. And for us, I guess the real elephant in the room is the question that we always get first up. I could ask you to ask it, but I’m going to tell you what it is. “Does this scale?” And that’s the thing that really has been, like … everyone in the organisation has come back to us with it, and the answer is, no, it doesn’t scale but that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t fit within the overall suite of offers and the way we relate to our audiences. So it’s a longer story we have to kind of unpack.

It’s also outside the mainstream of conventional museum education practice because it’s not a collection or institution centred approach. We literally rang up these schools and said, “Have you got someone who would like to have a chat to us? We’re opening up down the road. We’re not quite sure about what, but maybe it’s something we could do together.” Also, it’s not the easiest way to do things, because not every teacher wants to work with outside partners. It takes more resource than a contained, in-house kind of programme production process, but there’s some of them.

Thank you.

Peter Mahony and Karolina Novak from MAAS talked about encouraging risk-taking in museums at MuseumNext Australia in February 2017. If you enjoyed this presentation, you might enjoy watching Will Stanley from Science museum London talking about how his museum used Kickstarter to crowdfund.