Imagine visiting a museum. What comes to mind? Is it looking at priceless artefacts behind glass or other barriers? That is what many people think of when they think of museums, after all museums are the keepers of collections – collections of rare and irreplaceable representations of both societies and the natural world.
So it was perhaps no surprise that during one of our mineral handling sessions here at the museum, the class was astonished that they were being invited to touch the specimens. One of the boys asked enthusiastically "Can we really touch them?” to which Mike (one of our senior interpreters) energetically replied "Yeah". The boy responded, "Really? Cuz this is a museum and usually at museums, you aren't allowed to touch stuff." Of course, if we were the Britannia Mine Earth Sciences Centre, no one would question the freedom to touch the specimens, which brings me to the point of this blog post - breaking the barriers.
There is a reason people expect to not be allowed to touch objects in a museum – that is the expectation museums have created. As we strive to protect the objects we are entrusted with, we separate the object from the visitor. When it comes to school programming, we create educational collections intended to be handled, but by their nature, these collections consist of the more replicable objects. We do not open up the cases of the irreplaceable for examination (and for good reason).
But what about if we can in some instances do just that? What if we can open up our collections to handling? What if we can remove the barrier between object and student? What if we can invite the student to explore our objects with the same freedom as our educators and curators?
This has been our goal with our mineral handling programming. When it began, it involved handling the easily replaceable specimens. It now includes handling more unique samples of the same quality that are found behind glass in our mineral displays.
But what if students break them? This is perhaps the first question people ask. For the rarer specimens in the handling collection, we exercise more supervision than with the more common ones. For those more common ones, our response is "What does the break tell us about the specimen? What does it tell us about how we should handle the specimens?". Our Interpreters are trained to make learning opportunities out of all experiences. The result is an environment where learning is shaped by both the facilitator and the student.
What happens when students participate in shaping their learning? Diane, our Curator, provided me with her own example of the power of object driven inquiry-based learning.
“When I was doing a mineral & fossil handling session in a classroom in Scotland, I was pre-warned by the teacher about the problem kid. He turned out to be enthralled and later told his teacher he was going fossil hunting.”
For the Education Department of the Museum, it is these stories of unique transformative learning experiences that are our ‘Magic Moments’.