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A museum handling collection case study: ‘Small World’ at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Originally posted on 11 November 2013 #LMGBlogArchive #LMGBlogArchiveProject by Tony Eccles


In 2006, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) was awarded a £100,000 grant from the Designation Challenge Fund. As part of the 2006-8 “Opening Up Collections” scheme, RAMM wanted to explore how the ethnography collection could be accessed whilst the museum was undergoing a major redevelopment. One project this grant funded was Small World; an attempt to bring the museum and local schools closer by bringing items from the permanent and the handling collections together.

Handling Collection

A museum handling collection is traditionally a collection of artefacts designed to reflect a museum’s permanent collection. Perhaps best defined as a dynamic and affective resource, a handling collection enables the visitor to have a meaningful experience. It also offers an exciting opportunity for the visitor to engage with other cultures and periods of time through contact with historic objects (and replicas).

One of the earliest opportunities I had to properly use the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s ethnographic handling collection occurred in 2007. It had obviously been in existence for some years but I wasn’t aware of it being used regularly. This handling collection had been assembled with no clear strategy but various members of staff included many different objects that were acquired through temporary exhibitions or education activities. The items didn’t necessarily reflect the permanent collection.

Project set up

The museum was closed to the public in December 2007 for a major refurbishment and as such access to the collections was severely restricted. In the lead up to museum closure I liased with Tammy Addie, one of the museum learning officers. It was Tammy’s suggestion to first obtain advice from the Devon Education Services (DES), which helped to shape a school-based project called Small World. This project attempted to address identity through the theme of global fashion.

The project’s aim was to raise awareness of RAMM’s World Cultures collection and to highlight how this collection has relevance to the National Curriculum. The DES advisors consisted of professionals who specialised in the subjects of art, global citizenship, history and geography and they suggested how the project could be best used by teachers and students. They were very encouraging about the inclusion of a handling collection where students can access real objects that they wouldn’t normally come across in Devon. It was also aimed at Key Stages 2 and 3 as we were aware of students trying to prepare for their GCSE exams.

Small World was designed to encourage partnership development and this meant that the museum and the two local schools would work closely with one another. Two schools volunteered to trial this project, Isca College of Media Arts and St. Peters Church of England Aided School. Members of staff chose to supervise the project within their school and they provided feedback at the end of term.

The Small World display was split into two themes: ‘clothing’ and ‘adornment’. Each school received a kit consisting of themed display case, a large stand-alone world map, a box of related books, and a handling collection. Project funding also accommodated extras such as teaching packs from the Guatemala Maya Centre in London.

The main display and world map were placed in the school hall whilst the book and handling collection boxes were safely stored in the library. The schools kept their kit for the duration of a term, at the end of which the schools swapped cases. As a partnership, school and museum staff and the students of the two schools would share what they had learnt with one another.

The display cases included items from the permanent collection that were rarely seen by visitors e.g. a western-styled skirt made from Ghanaian kente, a boy’s waistcoat from Indus Kohistan, a pair of Chinese lotus shoes and a glass beaded AIDS awareness badge from South Africa. The handling collection and books were presented in conservation-quality boxes and included a whole variety of material such as a length of Ghanaian kente cloth, a Guatemalan huipil, feather earrings from Brazil, a wooden printing block for batik (tjap) etc.; all of these items were as authentic as the items on display.

The world map that stood next to the case incorporated photographs of the items contained within the display and these were accompanied by captions with provenance indicated clearly on the map.

One interesting tale that highlights the effect the display had on students comes from one Year 11 student who saw a pair of Chinese lotus shoes on display. In response to seeing these she said “my great grandmother, who’s still alive, has bound feet” and in the evening called her relatives in China to find out more about this process. This led her to making a giant lotus shoe as part of the school’s ‘Barriers’ work, reflecting her concerns about this practice.

Handling collection use and evaluation

Upon completion of the first year of Small World, museum education officer Helen O’Riain was commissioned to evaluate the project. She wrote

… the evaluator feels that the display cases reached more students than the boxes, but that the deeper engagement came from the handling of the artefacts…

It was clear to Helen that there was an immediacy and strength in the work inspired by the objects that would have been difficult to achieve just from pictures or from the static display. One teacher who participated in the project commented:

Being able to take things out and touch them.. you can look at the scale, the stitches. You can’t see the strips in a photo of kente cloth, but handling the real things, they really enjoyed that.

The head of the St. Peter’s International Studies group commented on the positive effects the handling collection had on her students;

I think that the really big change for me this time has been that they’ve used certain items almost as a stimulus to going on and finding out about other things. We had the handling boxes for three lessons and in most of those lessons we were looking at things laid out on the floor and talking about where they’d come from and what the patterns might mean, what the colours might mean…and then the students said ‘Well can we try one on?’ so we did and they now want to go round classes with these costumes on …the artefacts were a springboard giving them ideas of what to do…

Using their own initiative, students learned how to wear a sari by downloading instructions from the Internet and using an example from the handling collection.

They’ve taken photographs of themselves…They wanted to be part of the clothing and then after that to talk about it.  I think the artefacts – the real thing – somebody’s real clothes… that’s really motivating and also it’s an opportunity for perhaps white middle-class children to actually put something on that they only see on someone else who looks different, on TV or wherever, and they may have wondered what it would be like to wear (different clothes) but they would never have had the courage or the opportunity to try them on.

I’m absolutely sold on it – I’m really really pleased with the way it’s gone with these students.  It would work well with any student but the acid test is whether it works with the slightly more difficult child.  It was especially good getting voluntary homework from these two girls as they are less academic. Charlotte is quite difficult in some lessons and was extremely difficult in Arabic…it just wasn’t her sort of thing. But this has been a really positive experience and something she’s really going to be proud of when she’s finished it.

Despite the many practical challenges the project faced, including resource allocation and managing the movement of the handling collections, all of the aims were met. After three years Small World came to an end in 2010 to focus on RAMM’s redevelopment. I am indebted to the Designation Challenge Fund for supporting RAMM with such an ambitious project. It had its risks, but I believe the project was worth doing because it demonstrated the value of having available an interesting museum handling collection.

Unfortunately RAMM didn’t have the resources to continue running a similar programme after the reopening of the new galleries.  I’m keen on the idea that museum handling collections can tap into the National Curriculum, however this requires careful advance planning with teaching staff.  Handling collections are potentially Pandora’s boxes with the ability to trigger students’ curiosity about the wider world.

Lessons learnt

– Keep the project simple, ‘Small World’ wasn’t, but the administration was possible while the permanent galleries were shut. RAMM now has several boxes of themed ‘world cultures’ handling collections as well as a website resource available for use as a result of this project.

– Be flexible. When trying to find a suitable location for the display within a school building, conservation criteria did not always match with the teacher’s expectations.

– Include as many teachers as possible in the planning stages so that they fit the project into their particular subject.  Be aware that teachers wanted the museum collection to fit into the cultures they were interested in looking at and despite their kind suggestions this isn’t always possible.

– Be aware that some schools belong to Public Funded Initiatives (PFI’s) and despite having permission from the headmaster and the subject teachers, you may also need permission from the PFI body.

Tony Eccles, Curator of Ethnography, Royal Albert Memorial Museum

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