Museums to school

It’s 9.00 am in the classroom, and pupils gather around a strange black box. The teacher opens it and starts pulling out a pamphlet, a metallic light, and a book of ration coupons. Children delicately manipulate the objects while the teacher introduces today’s lesson: living in Leeds during the Second World War.

The box also contains documents explaining the history of each object and its significance in Leeds’s history, ideas for teaching around the topic, and guidelines on how to use the different items and care for them since they are not replicas. The material comes from the Leeds Discovery Centre, an open-access store and conservation centre for Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Learning in a box

Children benefit from the loan box because their school is part of the Leeds Museums and Galleries Primary School Membership Scheme. Joining the programme allows them to receive loan boxes throughout the year and benefit from training and workshops delivered by the Leeds Museums and Galleries Learning and Access Team.

Schools can borrow the boxes for a half term each and use them all at once or spread them throughout the year. The Leeds Museum and Galleries keeps track of each loan and provides teachers with training and written rules specifying how to handle and take good care of the artefacts.

Everyone involved values the objects and understands they must handle them responsibly. Children feel honoured, and their sense of belonging has been increased by the experience of being able to hold items that are part of the history of their city.

Victim of its success, the loan scheme uses a ‘first come, first served’ approach to manage the high demand compared to a limited amount of boxes.

From Finland to the UK, using the local to teach the national

Cultural Heritage in Action study visit

In addition to the boxes, the Leeds Museum and Galleries Primary School Membership Scheme gives them access to online resources for curriculum modules adapted to the local context. While the central government guides the National Curriculum, teachers in Leeds want a more relevant curriculum for their pupils.

The cities of Espoo and Helsinki were in a similar situation when, back in 2016, they presented their plan to create interrelations between culture and education during a study visit under the Culture for Cities and Regions project.

Like the UK, the Finnish National Board of Education determines the national core curriculum. Still, at the municipal level, this is specified through concrete objectives and contents for each subject. This creates an opportunity for schools and local cultural institutions to collaborate and develop cultural education connected to the curriculum.

Stories from the community

Inspired by the Finnish example, Leeds asked its community: “What stories do we want our children to know about our city?” Over 50 arts, cultural and community organisations and over 30 primary schools got together to answer the question and to co-create the Leeds Curriculum.

“Everything we do in Leeds, we tend to start it from the community itself. There is no sense in trying to impose anything,” says Kate Fellows, Head of Learning and Access at Leeds Museums and Galleries.

Everything we do in Leeds, we tend to start it from the community itself
— Kate Fellows

Organisations and individuals working in visual and community arts, heritage, libraries, archives, dance, drama, and theatre answered the question by creating over 300 stories – a series of narratives based on Leeds’ history and meeting curriculum objectives.

Pupils and the school staff were also involved in workshops to gather stories. Each story highlights something unknown and curious about Leeds. Many are based on images, films, oral histories, archives, museum objects and resources from arts and cultural providers across Leeds. The stories cover diverse situations, times and places, and each help tackle a contemporary issue.

Cultural Heritage in Action study visit

“It is the museum that goes to the people. And often it is the community that brings in their stories and the objects that are meaningful to them,” reads the report of the study visit Leeds hosted within the Cultural Heritage in Action project to present the initiative to other European cities.

The stories were uploaded on the website in June 2018, which now hosts around 2,000 of them. Teachers can access this resource to feed into their classrooms. New content is uploaded monthly, and the resources are evolving and everchanging as they are co-produced with the broader city community.

“The stories can shift and can change,” says Fellows. “We work with the community to develop a story, but sometimes somebody else sees it and says, ‘actually, that bit is not quite accurate,’ or ‘how about having this bit as well?’”

We work with the community to develop a story
— Kate Fellows

People in Leeds can rely on the Community Engagement Team to co-create and co-curate. It “engages and listens to what is needed and acts as a facilitator, creating the necessary conditions and resources, and making the spaces and the collections available for the expression and empowerment of all,” reads the report.

A pandemic-proof solution

Leeds Museum and Galleries already engaged 137,903 adults and children through informal activities before the pandemic. Their School Membership Scheme was up and running well before the health crisis. It turned out to be an excellent asset for the city in tackling student isolation and accessibility issues.

For example, usage of the curriculum resources increased by 44% during the pandemic. And the Leeds Museum and Galleries team didn’t stop there. The pandemic increased the educational attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, so the team worked with primary Membership schools, mostly in low-income areas, to re-think the curriculum and give out digital workshops and hundreds of home-schooling resources. The initiative had a positive impact on the well-being of around 2,600 pupils.

The Leeds Museum and Galleries used digital media to maintain and develop contacts with communities, schools, and social media audiences. They used and produced online learning resources spanning millions of years of history based on the Leeds Museums and Galleries collection. This helped schools redesign their curriculums to suit digital learning through a programme of workshops, creative videos and Covid-safe object loans.

Online for everyone

Part of the resources they made didn’t just target schools but also those who feel museums are not for them. They produced podcast episodes, YouTube videos, and museum behind the scenes using an informal tone and humour while keeping the informative content.

For example, the #MuseumFromHome initiative comprised short educational films about the Leeds collections recorded by museum staff and shared on social media. Each week, they used real museum objects from their school loans boxes and focused on a different theme.

Another example is the Museums n’That podcast. In this case, the Leeds Museum and Galleries team gave a glimpse of their work behind the scenes through curious questions, like: “How do you taxidermy a caterpillar?”

After the pandemic, Leeds learned from this experience and created a ‘Recovery Curriculum’ about acknowledging what children have been through and giving them a space to develop their resources. It is not just about teaching the curriculum to catch up with exams but rebuilding confidence, sense of self, love of curiosity, and sharing experiences.

Benefits and dissemination

The original project had started as a way to increase engagement in pupils as only 56% of children aged 8-11 in Leeds achieve the standard of education required by the central government – below the national average of 61%.

“Around half of the primary schools in the city are using the curriculum to teach, reaching around 10,000 children,” says Fellows. “We are now planning on evaluating the impact on attainment for those students.”

Around half of the primary schools in the city are using the curriculum to teach
— Kate Fellows

The scheme has already shown that children learn in an engaging and interactive way, gain softer skills, and feel valued and trusted to hold precious objects. Teachers also benefit from continuous professional development and enjoy using resources from the museums’ conservation stores and bringing them to class.

By using their collections as resources to respond to the needs of their communities, local authority-run museums act as platforms for community building. And it doesn’t hurt that the scheme generates income for the museums. For example, in 2021-22, the Schools’ Membership generated £19,500 (€22,893.88), and curriculum development packages generated approximately £4,000 (€4,696.18).

The Leeds Curriculum has inspired others as well as sparking a regional discussion. Bristol, Sheffield, Nottingham, and Bradford are already interested in working on similar projects. Evidently, the sharing of good practices continues its successful path, from Finnish to UK cities. Where will this one go next?

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer