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The New Learning Service: Challenging Perceptions at the GEM Conference

Last updated: 16 December 2016

While the Museum has been closed, the Learning Team have been hard at work developing an innovative and exciting new learning service. Here, Acting Head of Learning Amy Cameron talks about how the team have been challenging perceptions of the Museum within the education sector.

Nearly! Students practice picking up objects with the robot arm

Back in August, I was invited to talk at the Group for Education in Museums (GEM) annual conference. This is a supportive and interesting affair, with museum and heritage educators coming together to share their experiences, discuss lessons learned, and ask each other questions.

Our former Head of Learning, Tristan Langlois, had attended the previous year, and came away with the feeling that military museums are ‘a sector within a sector’, and not well understood.

The theme of the conference this year was 'Adapt and Thrive'. It focused on the challenges that museums are facing, the ways they are adapting, and - in many cases - thriving.

The members who spoke were facing a diverse set of challenges – from making their sites friendly for disabled people to working with artists in a dedicated school classroom, as well as introducing charges for their learning services.

My role was to talk about the challenges we face as a museum when, unlike other museums, our core funding comes from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The MoD is under increasing pressure to reduce the size of the regular army, and increase the size of the reservist forces in the UK. This could have many implications for the perception of the National Army Museum and its purpose within society.

The robotic arm the learning team produced for the new learning sessions

Our mission is to gather, maintain and make known the story of the British Army and its role and impact on world history. Our learning service has been a consistent and balanced part of this mission. Each year we deliver learning opportunities that discuss the realities of war and army life to thousands of students, from the youngest years of primary schools to the top.

Before we closed, our service was valued by users for its expertise and adaptability, and its balanced presentation. But some teachers who had never used us were worried that a learning service in a military museum would cover military subject matter inappropriately, or be intended to recruit. And the fact we are an army museum means some teachers are even more hostile in their reactions!

Our closure for redevelopment has allowed us to do a lot of additional consultation with teachers (especially those who had never visited). This has given us a better understanding of their perceptions and how we can make our service even more appealing.

New approach

Our new approach is to focus on topics that aren’t seen as our usual ‘bread and butter’. Starting with the theme of Citizenship, we were able to confront these perceptions and issues head on, and really encourage the type of dialogue we hope will be happening in our galleries and teaching sessions from here on in.

We’ve put our materials online, with videos and resources encouraging people to Take a View, prompted by bold and surprising questions:

  • Poppy with pride or poppy with pressure?
  • Should women fight in equal combat roles?
  • Do soldiers deserve preferential treatment?
  • Should we have a British Army?

Cadet placing the final poppy in the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ installation at the Tower of London, 2014

This way of working enables us to develop enquiry and discussion-based sessions. It also allows us to engage with different opinions.

Science and Engineering is another pathway we’ve explored. And although it’s been tougher, we’re getting there!

Recently there’s been an emphasis on showcasing the possible career opportunities presented by science and technology learning. So any education partnership with the National Army Museum has the risk of being seen by some as recruitment by stealth.

But, as before, we’re not focusing on the science and technology of weapons. We’re looking at the human experience. We’re looking at protection, prosthetics, robotics, designing uniforms for all weather, and always considering ethical questions as part of the sessions.

We’ve recently piloted our sessions looking at prosthetics and robotics. This has proven to be an interesting experience for the students. They’ve been able to use simple robotic equipment, understand some of the challenges faced by users of prosthetics, think about new developments in the field and give their insights about disability in society.

Coming back to the original theme of the GEM conference, 'Adapt and Thrive', we are growing, developing and adapting, both as an institution and as a learning team. We’ll be opening our new learning service in 2017. I hope you’ll come and see us to find out what else we have to offer.

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