A substantial component of my research while in Scotland involves seeking out and interviewing various professionals from many arts and community related fields. I have found people in Scotland to be very generous with their time and have been lucky to speak with lecturers, teachers, administrators, professors, museum educators, students, pupils, and strangers on the bus, all of whom have offered their own wisdom which is collectively filling my Fulbright notebook. Sarah Cowie works as the Learning Officer at the National Museum of Scotland and National War Museum and she sat down with me this week to discuss her role in community engagement for the National Museums. Her job is to essentially get as many pupils through the doors of the museums as possible.
The National Museum of Scotland is massive. It houses collections ranging from dinosaurs to modern technology and is truly a spectacle of curated exhibits arranged in a variety of architectural hosts. My favorite thing about Scotland's free national museums and galleries is how accessible they are. My family and I often find ourselves stopping on a whim as we pass by to enjoy one or two exhibits – the lack of commitment compared to museums with ticket prices of $25+ is really freeing. You will find a large diversity of visitors at the National Museum and it would seem as though getting people through the doors isn't an issue at all.
Cowie's job, however is to see which pupils and schools are accessing the museum and its resources and which ones aren't. She says that on average, 45,000 pupils and their teachers enter the doors each year. Of those, 1/4 enter to participate in pre-booked workshops while the rest do self-led or teacher-led visits. Primary students typically come in to learn about topics relevant to their grade level such as Romans, vikings, dinosaurs, or ancient Egypt, while secondary students typically are exposed to topics relevant to their exams, engage in STEM research and work with specialists and researchers. Schools within Edinburgh typically use public transportation to travel to the museum, however there is funding available through various organizations that help to alleviate any burden on parents and schools.
While the museum is well attended and schools within Edinburgh are using its resources, connecting with areas outside of Edinburgh is a priority as well. I was surprised and impressed to learn about the many creative engagement initiatives for pupils from remote areas. Work is being done to introduce families to the many partner museums around the country that offer learning experiences for school-aged children. Additionally, digital resources such as video conferencing sessions, google hangouts, and educational resources via google street view are made available to pupils and are proving successful.
The museum's programming is proving to be innovative in their approach to engage and connect with students. A great example is the current special exhibit, Parasites: Battle for Survival, an interactive, family friendly exhibition which explores the Scottish involvement in identifying and treating tropical disease and highlights the research currently taking place in Scotland. With a view to engage young visitors in STEM subjects, the exhibition’s creators have collaborated with secondary school pupils to trial designs, games and text. I find this to be a genius approach to community and school engagement as I see no better way to connect with pupils than to trust them with the involvement and design of the exhibit itself.
Imagine if all museums, especially those found in rural areas did the same.