Case Study: Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

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Getting your hands on the past, 2002-2004



Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service (NMAS) covers a number of local authority museums across the county. The 'Getting your hands on the past' project developed a 10-week, museum-based course for those with basic skills needs but with a real interest and enthusiasm for history. The project was initiated and managed by the NMAS education manager, who was also museum learning manager at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, and had previous experience as an adult basic skills tutor. She had undertaken basic skills development work prior to this project, as part of her usual duties, including visits to museums for tutors and learners; outreach sessions using the museum's 'handling collection' (of objects that the public can touch) at basic skills venues; basic skills awareness-raising training for museums staff; and looking at the language used in promotional material and exhibit information. As a result she already had a number of contacts in the basic skills field. NMAS also recruited a project coordinator with experience of working with 'hard-to-reach' adults.

Recruitment of learners

Course participants were 'new' learners (ie not already enrolled on a course of any kind) who were unemployed, and were recruited via an intensive outreach programme targeted at the top 10% of the most-deprived wards in the county. The coordinator worked through local venues and networks, such as job centres, mother and toddler groups and community centres, to recruit adults with basic skills needs. It was an extremely labour-intensive and time-consuming process, requiring a lot of development activities such as meeting local representatives, attending meetings and talking informally to local people. A total of 30 participants were recruited across four locations: Norwich, King's Lynn, Thetford and Great Yarmouth. Most were aged between 30 and late-60s.

What went on

The course was based around the handling collection of Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, with basic skills elements embedded within and mapped to the Skills for Life curriculum. Content was drawn up jointly by a group that included basic skills, museum and project staff. The aim was to use local history and artefacts to stimulate literacy learning and interest in further learning opportunities.

Each session was delivered jointly by the Norwich Castle museum educator and a basic skills tutor. Students worked with the museum educator to investigate objects relating to different historical periods. For instance, when they were at Norwich Castle, they were given a selection of medieval objects. With each object, they looked at aspects such what it was made from; what its function was; who might have made it and who might have owned it. In this way, students were able to build up a picture of what life was like in Norwich Castle in medieval times. Such sessions were complemented by literacy work, led by the basic skills tutor. These activities focused on the literacy skills within the core curriculum, including speaking and listening, reading and writing.

The course was run consecutively in the four participating museums and some activities were adapted to draw on the specific context and content of the host museum. The project also hoped to increase the use of local museums by the target audience. Organised trips to other venues were made as a group and each participant was given a free pass to access venues independently. Visits were also made to the local library.

Details of funding

The project received just over £50,000 of Objective 3 funding from the European Social Fund, through the Learning and Skills Council. Alongside NMAS as the lead organisation in the bid were other local partners: YMCA Training (a local basic skills provider); Norfolk Library Service; and Norfolk Information, Advice and Guidance (a service providing advice on learning and employment opportunities for adults).

Success factors

One of the key success factors was the familiarity of the museum education officer with the artefacts that formed the basis of the course content. This created a sense of ease in handling and talking about the objects, and this was commented on by the learners. The experience of the project manager in both the basic skills and museum education fields was also a great advantage. A further success factor was running the course four consecutive times in different locations; this allowed the team delivering it to hone the sessions, respond to any feedback from learners, and become more comfortable with the method of working.

Outcomes for learners

Evaluation showed that the course had a significant impact on both the literacy skills and the appreciation of museums among the participants. Participants were generally working at entry level and, while gaining the national qualification in adult literacy was not a requirement, and their primary motivation for taking part was their interest in history, all participants either achieved the qualification or went on to enrol on a college course leading to it. NMAS was able to track how widely the free museum passes were used outside of the formal sessions. The data showed that many learners made use of this pass and visited venues by themselves; some even upgraded to a family pass to allow them to take family members along with them.

Progression for learners

At the end of the course, the Information, Advice and Guidance Service was on hand to provide learners with information on what their next steps could be. The majority of the participants signed up for further courses, including those linked with other interests, such as arts and crafts.

Regional strategy

Prior to this project, NMAS was already part of the Norfolk Basic Skills Strategy Group, representing the museums, libraries and archives sector. The group was established to develop a cross-departmental basic skills strategy for the county, and included representatives from the local Learning and Skills Council, Norfolk Learning Partnership, basic skills providers and the adult education department. Involvement at this level has enabled NMAS to ensure that the input of museums, archives and libraries is included in the drafting of the county-wide strategy. NMAS is now represented on the subsequent operational group, which is delivering the strategy and providing a forum for sharing ideas across organisations and agencies.

NMAS has also been made the lead partner in the Norfolk Renaissance in the Regions scheme, a national programme to rejuvenate regional museums, which puts it in an even stronger position to lead activity on museum-based literacy learning across the county. NMAS is continuing to develop its work with Skills for Life and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) groups through activities such as the delivery of awareness-raising training for museum staff and support for local basic skills groups.


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