Q&A with the Education and Outreach Team at MAA

10 minute read

MAA’s Education and Outreach team welcomed over 80 school groups in 2023, as well as attending and leading a number of community outreach events. On 30th January 2024, I sat down with Dr Rob Law, one of MAA’s Education and Outreach Assistants to find out more about what the team do and why it’s such a key part of the Museum’s work. 

How did you get into museum education? 

I’ve worked in museums for a very long time, probably over 30 years. I was a Museum Attendant in a couple of museums in Manchester when I was working as an artist and then, when I moved to Cambridge, I worked part time as a Volunteer Services Assistant at the Fitzwilliam. I then worked as a Studio Assistant in the Education Department of the Fitzwilliam, as part of the artist’s studio they have there. I worked for a while as a Museum Technician and then left in 2014 to do a PGCE. So, I retrained as a mature student to be a primary school teacher, and worked for three years in state schools and for a year at a pupil referral unit. In 2019 I saw the job at MAA come up and I applied. I had also studied archaeology as a mature student, so suddenly, there was an opportunity to combine my archaeology knowledge with my teaching skills and work at the museum. 

Can you give us an idea of what MAA’s education and outreach programme offers? 

I do all the primary school teaching and we have a range of sessions which are based on the national curriculum. All primary schools must do a topic session, which is basically their history stream, through the national curriculum. There are options, so it may be Roman Britain, it may be the Stone Age to the Iron Age, or it may be studying ancient civilisations such as the Maya. Over the years the Museum’s Education and Outreach team have created sessions that are based around the national curriculum. So that’s what we offer. In terms of outreach, we’ve worked with various community groups, homeless charities, and young people’s charities. We’ve also done work with mental health groups, dementia groups, and the City Council’s community picnics. We’re open to building new relationships with different potential user groups. 

Why are community outreach events such an essential part of the museum’s work? 

It’s about broadening our appeal to a wider audience because not everybody that lives in Cambridge, comes to its museums. Having worked at a primary school on the outskirts of the city, there were plenty of children who had never been to any of the University of Cambridge Museums and didn’t think they were places that they could go to. It’s about trying to reach out to these groups to say, look at the resources that we have – it’s free, and it’s a great day out. You can come in, pick up a trail or some worksheets, you can explore the museum, you can sit down and do some colouring; you can find things out. So, it’s about broadening the range of people that feel they can come to the museum and to make sure that people know that it is a free resource. 

What’s the most popular session for group visits? 

The ancient Maya is a very popular one. Also, the Stone Age to Iron Age. There seem to be trends; in certain years lots of teachers choose to do Stone Age to Iron Age, and in others, it might be the Anglo Saxons. But the Maya is one that runs through every year and seems to be a very popular topic. Often teachers from local schools will come one year with their school group, enjoy the session and come back the following years. So, we get return visits by the same teachers, who bring their classes each year to do one of our sessions and it becomes part of their learning at that school. 

Which object on display is most popular with children? 

It depends on the area of the museum we’re exploring, because if we’re doing the Stone Age, we’ll be on the ground floor. But if we’re moving through the galleries, probably the one that attracts a lot of attention is the totem pole. And the obvious question is how did they get the totem pole into the museum, or today it was, where did they dig the totem pole up? Not everything in the museum has been excavated by archaeologists, and a lot of objects have been collected by anthropologists. So, I have to explain the difference between the two disciplines. But the totem pole is definitely a favourite, mainly because it’s so big. Children wonder first what it is and secondly, how on earth it got into the museum. We tell the tale of the museum being designed to one day have a totem pole because it didn’t have one when they built the museum. We tell them that when the totem pole arrived at the museum they couldn’t get it through the door, so they sawed it in half and brought it up through the trap door and then assembled the pieces. Then the children ask, is it safe? Is it going to fall over? All those kinds of questions. 

A collage of two images. The image on the left is of a tall totem pole nearly touching the museum's ceiling. Some red Chinese lanterns are hanging from the railing on the second floor. The image on the right is of a museum's second floor, with various glass cases and a canoe suspended from one corner of the ceiling. The totem pole is in the background.

Figures 1 and 2. The totem pole on display in MAA’s Maudslay Gallery. Image credit: Author.

Do you have a favourite object? 

I’ve got two! Can I have two? One is a little flint hand axe, which is in one of the cube cases, just by the entrance and the visitor service desk. There’s a fossilised shell in the axe. Just trying to imagine what the maker’s perception would have been of finding a shell within a piece of flint. Discovering this thing, but also then, carefully knapping around it and keeping it as part of the object.

There’s also a very small little Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged arrowhead. It’s triangular shaped, a little bit like a simple drawing of a Christmas tree, and we use that in our handling collection when we’re doing Stone Age to Iron Age. It’s just such a beautifully made object. It’s so fine. Whenever I handle it, I imagine the person 5,500 years ago who sat down and knapped this little thing. The amount of skill and knowledge that this person clearly had to create something so beautifully formed and so fine. It’s also damaged, so it looks like it could have potentially been used. 

Well, that leads on quite nicely because my next question is about object handling, which is a key part of many of the sessions the museum offers. Why is it so important? 

I think it’s all well and good having PowerPoints in school and worksheets and things like that, but if you can bring the kids to the museum, not only are they seeing the things in the cases, but they also have the opportunity to sit down and handle an original artefact, which is very powerful. For example, kids can handle a Palaeolithic flint, hand axe, which may be over 30,000 years old and may have been used to butcher a woolly mammoth near Arbury or somewhere like that. Touching and feeling it gets the kids to realise that these are original objects that somebody’s made and used. If they are archaeological objects some groups really respond to that and I can say to them, you can almost smell the Bronze Age on this object. I get the kids sniffing the thing going, yeah, yeah, yeah, I can smell something! So, it’s that real tangible, touching the past, which is a unique thing to do. Most of the people that come into the museum, they just look at the objects in glass cases. But the school children get an opportunity to handle real objects. It’s usually quite an exciting thing for them to do, and very memorable. 

What opportunities do temporary exhibitions like MAA’s current exhibition, Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region, offer you? 

It depends on the theme of the exhibition. This one has been useful because we can use it when we teach Stone Age to Iron Age as it’s got objects on display from that period. It’s also very good for sessions about the Angles, Saxons and Jutes because we have all the objects from the Trumpington burial on display, including a reconstruction of the face of the young girl who was buried with these objects. So, current exhibitions give us opportunities to use objects that we wouldn’t normally have access to. 

A model of a burial. A selection of objects are placed around an illustration of a skeleton.

Figure 4. A model of the Trumpington burial with objects found therein. Image credit: Author.

What are you working on at the moment? 

We’re planning for Twilight at the Museums. It’s the time of the year where we turn the lights down low, and encourage visitors to come with a torch, pick up a trail and explore the collections in semi darkness. It gives a different perspective to the museum. Pre-pandemic it was very popular and would happen on the same evening, across all the University of Cambridge Museums. Post COVID the museums tend to do it on a smaller scale and on different days. This year we will be opening the doors for two hours on 21st February for a ticketed event where people can come along and explore the museum, see shadows they wouldn’t normally see. It’s also good for staff because you get to walk around the museum and look at these objects in a way that we might not normally do. 

Figures 4 and 5. Storage cases lit up and children pointing torches at objects in glass cases for Twilight at the Museums. Image credit: Author. 

We’re also organising an event for the Lunar New Year on Saturday 10th February. It will be a drop in event with craft activities to celebrate the start of the Year of the Dragon. 

What do you enjoy most about your job and what challenges do you face? 

I really love trying to get the kids excited about the collections. There is often a lot of children that come in with their class that have never been to a museum before and they suddenly walk into a building that’s beautifully lit and full of these wonderful objects from all over the world, across time and space. It’s important to give them an enjoyable session that’s a little bit entertaining, but also covers the key facts that they need to know about a particular topic. That’s also when the object handling comes in. I just love museums, so it’s about really trying to encourage them to enjoy the visit, and hopefully come back with their grownups so they can show them around if they’ve never been to the museum. It empowers them to come in with a bit more confidence. They can go to the top floor and tell their grownups about the ancient Mayan carvings and what the glyphs mean. Or they can show them objects from the Stone Age and Iron Age and explain to them about this time.  

The challenge? It’s a minor thing, but sometimes when you do the same session twice in a day, and you’ve got to go back to it and be as enthusiastic as you were the first time around. That can often be a little challenging, but once you settle into it, it becomes like a performance. You want to do your best, so the children enjoy their time. 

Rob, thank you so much for talking with me. 

For more information on the gallery-based sessions that MAA’s Education and Outreach team can offer, visit the schools page on the museum website, and the events page for information on what’s on at the museum.

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