Bringing History to Life – Royal Armouries Museum

Viewing an historical object in a glass case suspended on a plinth can be a fascinating experience in its own right but for those of us who are not blessed with vivid imaginations, it can sometimes be difficult to visualise how exactly such an object might have been used or employed in its particular time. Museum professionals and specifically those in learning roles are tasked with showing us how this might have occurred. However, rather than simply show us, the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds goes further and invites the learner to take a direct role in engaging with objects and the particular histories and narratives surrounding them.

Utilising their expansive collection of weapons and armour, the Education team offers this educational service in the form of a variety of dynamic and interactive workshops on historical topics related to the Vikings, the Norman Conquest, and the English Civil War to name just a few. Education Officer Chloe Coleman kindly took time out of her busy schedule to explain what techniques are used by herself and her team to engage learners in these workshops and how these experiences can provide an outstanding form of education outside of the classroom.

Above: The Royal Armouries Museum located at Leeds dock (Image provided by the Royal Armouries Museum)

Starting with the object

Above: Corinthian Helmet, 650 BC (Image provided by the Royal Armouries Museum)

Secondly, the sessions are guided by a Facilitator, whose job is to take the learners on a journey through the subject period utilising many different approaches; one of the more unusual being that of drama-process storytelling.

Above: The replica armour used in ‘Roman Rule: Boudicca’s Revolt’ ready to be donned by the learners during their active drill (Image provided by the Royal Armouries Museum)

An alternative to the classroom

It goes without saying that museums and galleries offer the potential for direct learning experiences that learners can’t get in the classroom. Chloe takes this view quite seriously, stating that “If it can be replicated in the classroom, we won’t do it.” This at first may seem like quite a radical position to hold but really it makes perfect sense. Why offer a learning experience the same or similar to what the learner can get in a formal education environment? After all, museums for the most part share a unique selling proposition; they’re places of wonder, discovery and curiosity, filled with fascinating, weird, and wonderful objects. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find a sixteenth-century German longsword or a fourteenth-century Japanese samurai helmet in the average classroom for example. Indeed, even the physical spaces within the Royal Armouries Museum are designed more like theatres, allowing for exciting and interactive shows and displays. The Royal Armouries Museum therefore, serves as a prime example of the learning that can be attained when museums take advantage of their unique collections and spaces to realise their full potential in providing rich and engaging learning experiences different to that of classroom-based learning.

Above: The workshop space set up ready for the Beowulf drama-process storytelling session (Image provided by the Royal Armouries Museum)

The workshops at the Royal Armouries Museum can actually make a real difference to learners who don’t necessarily thrive in a classroom. Chloe stressed that there have been many times when teachers have told her prior to the session that a specific child may not be likely to engage but in fact, the opposite has happened. Indeed, in her experience, it tends to be children who struggle in classroom lessons who are the ones who really thrive and come out of their shells in these museum workshops. It seems then, that providing an environment in which the learner is given responsibility and agency, can empower those learners to really take their own learning by the reins. This highlights the difference between classrooms as spaces for education, that is, environments in which more instruction and assessment typically takes place, in contrast to the potential of museums as spaces for learning, where a more fluid and experiential approach to learning can often be adopted.

Striving to be outstanding

Chloe and the rest of her team hold themselves as well as the quality of their learning programming to an incredibly high level. While the workshops offer something different to learners, they are still fundamentally there to support formal education and the national curriculum. Indeed, the workshops are viewed as being closely connected to the learning that takes place in the classroom. Chloe explained:

“We understand how difficult it can be for schools to get an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating and our workshops are going to be part of their lesson planning so they really have to be outstanding as well. We really envision ourselves in this way and pride ourselves in providing an outstanding education service where the first-person narrative from the session really is outstanding as well.”

In order to attain this outstanding service, teachers and group leaders are asked to complete a two page questionnaire as a form of evaluation after the school’s visit to the museum. Aware of the fact that this evaluation form is a little on the long side, Chloe remarked that this really is necessary to get the level of feedback required in order to review engagement and improve the sessions. Using this feedback to measure positive and negative trends is therefore key to maintaining and developing the outstanding learning experiences which the Education team prides itself on.

Making the historical virtual

In order to reach audiences unable to physically visit the museum due to Coronavirus restrictions, Chloe and the Education team have recently launched the option to participate in the sessions through a live streaming service. Offering the session as live instead of pre-recorded allows the team to ensure that learners are getting as close to the level of engagement that they would receive if they were physically at the museum as possible. Indeed, having the facilitator able to interact in real time with the learners makes all the difference when it comes to this type of engagement. Knowing that you’re still part of the story and will be called upon to participate requires the learner to be engaged in a way far superior to simply watching a scripted and pre-recorded video.

In regard to the high standard of technology required for live streaming services, Royal Armouries Museum is fortunate in the sense that they have their own audio-visual (AV) team able to provide installation and technical support services. The only real major challenge that the Education team have encountered on their live streaming journey is that they’ve only just started to offer this service (early May 2021) and as a result, they feel a little late to the party. The market for online workshops and sessions is currently highly saturated as some museums and galleries have been providing these services for well over a year now. However, due to their ability to fit within classroom timings and the potential they offer to supplement formal education, digital content provided by museums appears to still be in high demand, especially seeing as the future of the pandemic is still uncertain.

Moments of wonder

We all have those moments when interacting with our audiences that just makes us proud of the work we do. Chloe described how her personal favourite moments are those “moments of wonder”. The moments where the learner first walks into the gallery space and sees these amazing objects hanging from the walls or when a Facilitator first appears from behind a curtain dressed head to toe in some bizarre looking armour. However, the moments that Chloe is really proud of are those in which the child “just gets it”. All of a sudden they have this realisation that they’ve understood a core concept through this learning experience consisting of object-based learning, drama-process storytelling and interactive drills. They’ve understood for the first time for example what it might have felt like to witness a legion of Roman soldiers invading and occupying their hometown or adversely what it may have felt like to become a proud Roman soldier fighting for their Emperor. 

Above: A child interacting with one of the Live Interpretation team who performs character pieces and fights and gunfire demos during the day (Image provided by the Royal Armouries Museum)

This again highlights how learning can take place through the learner constructing meaning from their own experience and doesn’t necessarily have to come from instruction or to be taught in the traditional sense. The importance of the learner in their own learning is therefore one of the core values of the workshops at the Royal Armouries Museum and in Chloe’s words, “The most important thing when it comes to learning is to make sure you’re always putting the learner at the centre of everything you do, it’s all about the learner.”

Concluding thoughts

Bringing history to life is no easy task, yet the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds succeeds in providing an environment in which through the combination of object-based learning, drama-process storytelling and active drills, learners can bring that history to life on their own terms. Importantly, the museum capitalises on its extensive collection of weapons and armour to use the object as a starting point for the learning and the interactive storytelling which follows it. The Facilitator encourages active participation and decision-making, employing the learners as direct agents of their own learning. In doing this, an outstanding learning experience is created in which the learner is placed at the centre of their own learning, in turn offering an experience different to that of classroom-based learning but which in turn supplements this formal education. So whether the learner takes the role of a Viking deciding whether to raid or trade, or a British citizen deciding whether to join the Home Guard or the Air Raid Precaution Units, it can be assured that the learner will engage in a learning experience like no other.

Useful links:

Do you think drama-process storytelling can be employed by all museums or does this mode of learning lend itself best to particular collections?

Feel free to answer in the comment box below.

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