Early learning centres

Keeping a large group of school children entertained is no easy task but the UK’s museums are meeting the challenge.

Imagine three coachloads of excitable six-year-olds about to be let loose in a museum. Unless you have first-hand experience of such an onslaught, you won’t even begin to appreciate the planning and logistics which can make or break such a school trip. Providing well designed facilities to accommodate school and family groups is becoming more of a priority within the museum sector, thanks to growing demand from teachers, coupled with growing revenue from such visits.

As more and more museum refurbishment programmes get underway, such facilities are moving higher up on the agenda and are no longer relegated to dark, disused corners.

Take the recently revamped National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which has The Submarine available for school parties, complete with dolphin bins, portholes and submarine interior – a totally new facility.

At the new Wellcome Wing, being built at London’s Science Museum, all the themes have National Curriculum-related strengths, explains Tim Molloy, head of design at the museum. “A considered design approach is very important – we’d never create a gallery that panders to clichés about what children like,” he adds.

The Science Museum was one of the first to recognise the need for such carefully planned facilities. As one of the UK’s most popular museum destinations for school trips (it attracts 2500 pupils per day), it had to meet the huge demand for dedicated areas where children could have lunch, visit the toilet, listen to talks and generally let off steam.

Ben Kelly, who designed The Basement concept at the museum, explains: “The requirements were more to do with accommodating large numbers of school children who arrive by the coachload. It’s about processing and efficiency. The whole point is not to speak down to them or be condescending by using clichés such as primary colours and soft squidgy shapes.”

School children have their own separate entrance and move quickly to The Basement where coats and bags can be stored. Lunch can be eaten on The Terrace, a flexible area where talks and demonstrations take place. Kelly says that it was also important to make the space accessible for all children. Ramps are provided so those in wheelchairs aren’t stuck at the front, while the sinks in the toilets vary in size to accommodate different ages. Kelly likens the space to an airport waiting lounge. Colour-coding and numbers are common features within such facilities. “It has to be an exciting and stimulating environment,” he adds.

“Over the past few years, educational facilities have become part of the briefing criteria and now more often than not there tends to be an education officer on the team who is involved with the initial briefing sessions,” says Robin Nye, an associate at Jasper Jacob Associates, which was the lead consultant for the galleries at the newly refurbished National Maritime Museum.

Christine Lalumia, deputy director and head of education at London’s Geffrye Museum, stresses the need for flexibility within educational space. The museum’s newly designed workshop facilities, created by Branson Coates, are intentionally obvious, and are aimed at a range of age groups, as well as school parties.

“We wanted our facilities to be visible so that when activities are going on people can see them. In a lot of places there are good facilities behind the scenes which was where ours used to be. Having them visible reinforces the idea that education is at the core rather than an add-on,” says Lalumia.

Situated on the lower level, visitors can’t fail to see the workshop rooms. They have glazed walls, sinks, storage and access to outside. Key requirements within the brief were that the rooms felt “bright and airy and not like a school”, she adds.

Providing more links with education within the galleries themselves is also becoming increasingly important, as teachers are faced with ever changing National Curriculum requirements. Displays and galleries based around the curriculum will be a welcome bonus.

At the Museum of Scotland, the Discovery Centre, which opened last October, links in with the Scottish Curriculum and was developed in conjunction with a teachers’ committee and a junior board comprising Scotland-wide school children. Special projects officer Maureen Barrie says: “The Discovery Centre is [about] learning with fun. It’s a far cry from the museum trips of 30 years ago, with children in crocodile fashion not allowed to touch anything. Here children are actively encouraged to investigate and handle the materials.”

Created by Redman Design Associates, the centre focuses on the history of Scotland and provides an introduction to the other galleries within the museum. Interactive activities include magnetic jigsaw puzzles for younger children, exploring a Roman soldier’s kit bag, reconstructions from a Viking skeleton and a game to locate a safe place to build a castle. “It’s so important that children aren’t just faced with glass cases. Having this element enriches their experience,” stresses Barrie.

However, Bill Kerridge, a designer at 3D Concepts which worked on the National Maritime Museum project, warns that interactive elements need to be able to withstand large numbers of children. “You have to curtail outlandish ideas because anything delicate gets pulled off. Exhibits need to be robust.” Safety and accessibility issues are also key requirements within the design brief, he adds.

Molloy believes providing interactive activities is “key to getting messages across”, but says there should be the right balance of exhibits.

Within the Wellcome Wing, which focuses on contemporary and future science and opens next June, will be the Pattern Pod, introducing children aged three to eight to issues of contemporary science through pattern-making.

The gallery is highly interactive and was developed in conjunction with the education unit and advisory committee which links into education. The design team for the project combines the high profile names of architect Chris Wilkinson, product designer Geoff Hollington and graphics specialist Michael Johnson.

“The Pattern Pod is typical of this new breed of gallery, where you need that specialist collaboration,” says Molloy.

“It’s a visually rich and dense environment, but it is also sophisticated. This is because we want adults to feel comfortable and children are [always] more advanced than we actually think they are.”

National Museum of Photography, Film and Television

Following a £16m overhaul, Bradford’s National Museum of Photography, Film and Television now boasts impressive facilities designed with school children in mind.

Museum head of education Sarah Mumford believes such facilities would not have been as high on the agenda if she hadn’t been part of the senior management team responsible for the revamp. ‘The museum recognised we needed to provide better facilities because I was on the senior management team. Giving education staff a more prominent role is starting to happen now that education is a buzz word with the Government,’ she says.

As part of the project, the museum has a dedicated schools room called the Bite Box where coats and bags can be safely stored, lunches eaten and talks given. There is also a further workshop space where courses and lectures can be held. But the big attraction is the Magic Factory, an interactive gallery which links directly into the National Curriculum and was designed and planned after extensive consultation with local teachers.

The gallery focuses on light, which is ‘notoriously difficult to teach’, according to Mumford, who used to be a primary school teacher. Activities, which include periscopes, fibre optics and extensive use of distorting mirrors, are presented in a fun setting. They were conceived by John Trenouth, senior curator of TV at the museum and former physics teacher, and designed and implemented by the museum’s in-house design team.

‘A focus group of science teachers and the local science adviser came and evaluated the activities. It was crucial to have input from them,’ stresses Mumford. Since April, 33 000 children have visited the gallery in pre-booked school groups. ‘The gallery has proved so popular people have approached us to build the same thing in other public venues,’ she adds.

Key issues in planning the facilities included designing spaces to accommodate class-sized groups (usually around 30 children), and the use of durable materials.

The Bite Box was an ‘absolute requirement’, says museum project director Tony Sweeney, ‘It had to be functional, but also a space where kids could have fun.’ Chris Pritchett, a partner at architect Austin-Smith Lord, which worked on the museum revamp, says: ‘The choice of materials includes things which can be hosed down. Ceilings and lights are lower to provide intimacy and be more on a child’s scale.’

Acoustics is also a crucial factor – especially with the hard surfaces. Austin-Smith Lord’s solution was to incorporate large fabric circular panels which hang from the ceiling. Mumford was initially concerned that children might try to throw their sandwiches on to them – luckily that hasn’t happened so far.

National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich reopened in March after a £20m redevelopment by Rick Mather Architects and Building Design Partnership. For the first time it offered much needed facilities for school parties to leave bags and coats, have lunch and listen to stories and demonstrations.

Themed as the Submarine, the space is far more than a dingy room hidden out of sight. A window links it to the museum’s courtyard and inside children are treated to a submarine interior with stacking boxes for seating, a dolphin bin, colour coordinated storage and portholes with cartoons.

‘We’d never had schools facilities before,’ says museum exhibition projects director David Spence, ‘The education department needed a space for talks and story telling and it was also important to have cloakroom facilities for groups.’

To cope with up to 150 000 children in pre-booked groups each year, materials include rubber flooring. ‘It was actually one of the most difficult spaces to work with because of the low ceiling height, but visitors aren’t aware of that now,’ says Robin Nye, associate at lead consultant for the gallery Jasper Jacob Associates.

Museum design specialist 3D Concepts was responsible for implementing the design for the Submarine, and also worked on The Bridge, an interactive new addition geared towards seven- to 14-year-olds.

‘We wanted to increase our interactive offer because the existing All Hands gallery is always oversubscribed,’ says Spence. The Bridge follows on from the All Hands Gallery and provides children with the chance to navigate the steering of a Viking ship and a Victorian paddle steamer, and plot a safe course for the passenger ferry Seacat into Dover.

‘The Bridge provided an opportunity to expand on elements linked to the National Curriculum in terms of science and technology. The original brief was put together in conjunction with the education department after consultation with teachers and the disabled access working group,’ adds Spence. Separate to the exhibits is an area which can be used for group talks and for storing resources.

Bill Kerridge, a designer at 3D Concepts, points out that the education department was keen to incorporate team as opposed to individual activities to encourage collaboration: ‘Open access was also important, and the Viking ship activity was designed with wheelchair access. There’s much more emphasis now in making exhibits accessible for all children, including those with learning difficulties.’

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