Some 9–10 year olds discover the treasures of University College London by enjoying experiences in the university’s museums — Maja Neske and Sara Rayment reflect on their experiences of working with UCL Culture

Whilst studying part-time for our graduate degree in Museums and Galleries in Education at UCL, we worked for two years for UCL Culture in a voluntary capacity. Despite living in London and loving museums, neither of us had visited or even heard of the Grant Museum of Zoology, the Petrie Museum of Egyptology or the Art Museum until we started our studies at UCL and were introduced to them. All three museums are situated close to University College Hospital, not far from Warren Street tube station. Our mission for UCL Culture was the design and delivery of the Creating Aspirations project with George Mitchell School in Leyton. Creating Aspirations forms part of the UCL East Museums and Schools Programme, which is now in its fourth year. This programme hopes to widen participation by enabling pupils of all ages from deprived areas to make early university connections by inspiring them through positive and creative experiences with the university’s museums.

Following several school-based and museum workshops in the Grant Museum of Zoology, the Petrie Museum of Egyptology and the Art Museum, our first class of Year 5 pupils (9–10 years) decided to create their own museum called GMMoO (George Mitchell Museum of Objects). The museum was housed in the school’s Art Studio and displayed a range of artwork inspired by the pupils’ experiences in the UCL museums. There was a vast array of exhibits including clay sculptures of shabtis, paper mâché eggs, paintings, drawings, intaglio prints and stop-motion videos. GMMoO was open to the public for 4 days in June 2019 and was a huge success.

In September 2019, we began working with our second group of 9–10 year olds from Year 5 Yew Class at George Mitchell School in Leyton. This participatory project grew organically. Learning from our experiences in the previous year, we had started by taking the pupils to visit the Grant Museum of Zoology and the Petrie Museum of Egyptology. There, the pupils undertook Scavenger hunts, which enabled them to explore the space and collections independently. On a subsequent visit to the Grant Museum, we directed the pupils to examine the style and content of the labels and then we held a label writing workshop. At the end of each session, we encouraged the pupils to evaluate their experience anonymously and explained that this would help steer the course of this year’s project (2019–20). Several pupils commented that it would have been even better if they had been able to touch the objects, so in our subsequent session in school, we brought in artefacts (replicas) from the Petrie and the Grant, and did an object handling workshop.

Yew Class working with students and staff at the Petrie Museum during the Creating Aspirations project

In responding to the pupils’ enthusiasms, we proposed organising a Grant Museum Takeover day. The pupils were thrilled and after serious consideration of the range of jobs available in a museum, the pupils eagerly submitted applications for prospective roles. We were gearing up to this takeover event when our plans were derailed by the Coronavirus pandemic. We were ready to accept defeat and submit to the ‘unprecedented circumstances’, when Emma Bryant, the Schools Engagement Manager at UCL Culture suggested that we convert the pupils’ hard work to an online experience. We could use some unused budget to create a Virtual takeover of the Grant Museum instead.

Yew Class’s Virtual Takeover

Year 5 Yew Class had been in the process of designing their own Scavenger hunt for the Grant Museum for their Takeover Day, so with the support of Anne Coquin, the Senior Website Editor at UCL, the Year 5 plan was converted to an online trail of the museum itself. The pupils had already chosen thirteen key artefacts displayed across the Grant Museum and designed and written new labels for them. These objects included the Japanese spider crab, the Dugong, the Saltwater crocodile, the Pangolin and the exploded human skull to name a few. So now viewers could click on the objects and read the labels written by the pupils. Their labels express their sense of wonder and energy. Ahmed writes, ‘Did you know that the Japanese Spider Crab has the greatest leg span of any arthropod, reaching up to 3.7 metres (12ft) claw to claw? How amazing is that!’ The pupils had been critical of the fact that the labels in the Grant museum only existed in English. So, on the website many of these labels are translated into the various first languages of the pupils including Romanian, Spanish and Arabic with the help of Year 5 parents and UCL students. Inspired by the prospect of developing a website, some of the pupils filmed themselves at home introducing the museum with infectious enthusiasm. One girl imagined herself as a future museum director. These short films could then be uploaded. The response from the pupils, parents, teachers and virtual museum-goers has been overwhelmingly positive. In six weeks of being live, the Creating Aspirations website had over 1,500 views. One teacher concluded that, ‘This was an excellent project which encouraged pupils to be more ambitious and opened their minds beyond the curriculum.’

Our explicit purpose was to introduce the pupils to the potential joy and fascination of UCL’s museums. Our implicit purpose was to instil motivation to go to university. The Creating Aspirations project plays a vital role in UCL Culture’s strategy of widening participation. It works from the premise that lighting a fire for academic study needs to start earlier in children’s lives. It is common practice for most universities to seek to attract students from Year 10 upwards, when some would argue their academic journey is already determined. UCL Culture believes children from a young age should be able to visualise themselves in a university context that is welcoming and represents them. As university graduate students on the Education in Museums and Galleries MA, we act as torch bearers for university. In addition to the museums, we took Year 5 pupils to libraries, to lecture theatres, to see the eccentric exhibit of Jeremy Bentham even to visit our own classrooms in the department of Museology in the Institute of Education. The pupils became familiar with the campus and confident about their association with it. These early connections to university through UCL museums can be fostered and used to support and raise attainment in their school career.

The global pandemic transformed the experience of the Creating Aspirations Project. We no longer had any direct contact with the pupils, but instead just with their class teacher, Abigail Neal. However, it did inspire some pupils to make films of themselves and it definitely boosted the morale of all pupils, parents and teachers to see their work and creativity online in a professional context.

Sara Rayment

BA Oxon Modern History and English; Secondary English PGCE; MA UCL Museums and Galleries in Education.

Sara Rayment is an English teacher and museum educator, born and bred in London. She taught for seventeen years at Graveney School, a large 11–18yrs mixed comprehensive in Tooting, before changing direction to museum education. She is passionate about her community: she is a governor at her local primary school, a regular volunteer for the learning department of Dulwich Picture Gallery and an education campaigner. Working for UCL Culture on the Creating Aspirations participatory project proved an exciting opportunity to realise the transformative effect of museum engagement on disadvantaged primary school children.

Maja Neske

Dipl.-Ing. (Architecture), MA (Museums and Galleries in Education)

Maja Neske is a German born architect and mother of three. As a passionate Londoner, museum visitor and long-term volunteer at the Science Museum she took up studying for the MA in Museums and Galleries in Education at UCL. Through her studies and the work for the participatory project ‘Creating Aspirations’ (CA) her sense of inequity and obvious barriers for some to enter a museum or seeing it as ‘for them’ was repeatedly reinforced. She sees her professional future in cultural projects that work towards more diversity and inclusivity within an institution’s workforce and its audiences; and she is determined to constantly challenge and educate herself to become a better museum educator.

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