Story Makers: Ways of Measuring and Seeing

A reflection on the Story Makers Project 2013/4
by Helen Edwards

Helen EdwardsAs an Arts Psychotherapist I am constantly fascinated and surprised by ways in which artistic engagement may breathe life into, and make visible, resources and ideas previously dormant. I have been Project Lead for one such initiative, Story Makers, which has been managed by Fusion Arts and funded by Children in Need since its conception. Through Story Makers, arts-based support, in partnership with museums, has been offered to children with speech and language difficulties in Primary Schools in Oxford each year since 2010.

Following on from a partnership with the Ashmolean Museum and then the Pitt Rivers Museum, I was very curious to develop Story Makers to work with the Museum of the History of Science. Having explored the capacities of ideas drawn from dialogues between Art and Archaeology, and Art and Anthropology, to hold, communicate and convey human experiences, I was very drawn to explore how ideas from science could be tapped into too.

dscf2678I felt such approaches could help children realise the details and learnt structures of the knowledge they hold about their worlds. Giving attention and thought to the operating of such ways of structuring and expressing their experience of the world, it may be possible to try out new ones, and realise the power of their own creativity and imagination. In my view these are essential tools, transferable to most areas of problem solving.

The idea for this year’s process – Ways of Measuring and Seeing – emerged through the study of collections in the Museum. I had been considering for a while the ways in which the body learns a sensory map of the world and the incorporation of somatic, body based maps of measuring space.  For example, how in the night if one gets up for a glass of water, even in the dark there is an innate knowledge of the number of stairs, length of the hallway, location of a glass and tap, without visual confirmation.

dscf2690A felt sense of orientation in the world may underpin and create a sense of balance and security and I felt fascinated to see how this might link with the historical development of anthropomorphic measuring systems – the measuring of the world based on human body parts, such as hands, feet and fathoms, a fathom original being based on the width of a man’s open arms. Discussions with the primary education officer at the Museum, Michelle Holloway, were incredibly fruitful. Together we thought about combining work with measuring instruments in the Museum with activities to support the children’s enquiry.

dscf2694The children ranged from excited to very concerned about their visits to the Museum. Some had visited either with family, or with school groups, whereas others had never visited. For them, this was going into a land of the unknown, this external journey representing the border they were crossing internally, a big leap of faith for both children and adults. The project was both personally and artistically exciting and challenging, shepherding and heralding new ideas as they arrived, encouraging the new inventors to breathe belief into their ideas.

The huge, light spaces of the museum galleries were so different to many of the small classrooms and buildings more familiar to these groups. The fragile glass cases and many beautiful, old instruments and devices, so carefully crafted by their makers, echoed the new ideas emerging from these developing children. The children had questions about these makers in their endeavour to try and understand the social and emotional nature of their lives. Each Story Maker participant drew from and built on ideas from their imagination, and the process of working with the Museum lead to an extraordinary collection of new characters of invention, with their own unique stories, communicating new understanding and awareness of their worlds and innate creativity.


Oxford Brookes Alternative Placement

Harriet and Jordan teaching their final sessions after their 3-week placement at the Museum

Harriet and Jordan teaching their final sessions after their 3-week placement at the Museum

Harriet Crombie and Jordan Greco are currently studying for BA in Primary Education at Oxford Brookes University. As part of their second year placement, as well as working in a school, they had the opportunity to work alongside an education officer in a museum in Oxford; they decided to visit the Museum of the History of Science. Here they would plan a session to teach to the children from their class. They reflect on their experience:

“On our first day we made our way down the stones stairs to the basement and met Michelle, the Education Officer, who took us round the 17th century building showing us the many different displays of instruments used in the past by many different people. We didn’t get long however until the first school visited, they had been studying Space, and Michelle ran a session enabling children to look at and touch a variety of objects used by Space explorers.

When planning our session we had to think really hard about what we would want the children to learn, what they could gain from their visit and hopefully take back into the classroom. As the children were learning about France this term, we decided to make this the theme of the school trip.

For us (and we think for the children!) the trip went really well- Jordan and I organised 3 different activities, consisting of a French object trail in the Top Gallery, sketching the French Revolutionary Clock in the main entrance, and creating and using sundials in the basement. To finish off the trip with a fun, whole class activity we taught the children some relevant words to the trip (such as sundial, museum, clock etc) in French to take back to their families at home.

We managed to introduce much of the trip knowledge in school prior to the day, such as talking about the French Revolution and the rising up of the people in France against the Royals so that the Revolutionary clock was more relevant to the children.  Extensions to the sundial activity would be to use them outside during a science lesson.

We both had a fantastic time in the museum made much easier by the support of Michelle, one of the education officers working there. The staff were great to work with and we really felt like we explored learning outside of the classroom. It was a very worthwhile experience and we would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity!”


The acquisition of a WWII nursing handling collection

Michelle and a colleague model the Indoor and Outdoor nurse unifoms from the new handling collection

Michelle and Laura model the Indoor and Outdoor nurse unifoms from the new handling collection

I was very excited when I heard that we had the opportunity to acquire some new objects from the Balfour Museum at the British Red Cross Offices in Winchester, which are to be closed down and the Museum with them. I had been looking for ways to build a Primary school session around our penicillin collection, and the possibility of acquiring some handling objects seemed an ideal way to shape a session, as well as adding to the existing offer for secondary schools about the development of Penicillin. The WWII connection is a great context for the climax of the story of penicillin. Handling objects are useful anyway, for any number of reasons, and education departments are always keen to acquire them, particularly when they are being offered free of charge.

At the end of December 2012, our long list of requested objects was de-accessioned from the Balfour, and found its way to the University of Oxford Joint Museum Education Service. While we will share all the objects (in fact, there is often lending and borrowing between the education departments of all the University Museums), a selection have found their way here, to serve as inspiration and motivation for the creation and promotion of a WWII session for primary schools.

We have been lucky enough to acquire two full indoor and outdoor uniforms, and when one of each came out of the box in the office, how could we resist trying them on? The result can be seen in the photograph above.

The process of acquiring the objects began in October 2012, when I went with a colleague from the Oxford University Joint Museums Service to the Balfour Museum where we found a small room packed with a huge assortment of objects and uniforms, mostly from the period around the Second World War. Armed with a list of the items on offer we viewed a table full of objects selected by the Balfour Collections Manager.

The room was very quiet and we were shy to reveal how many of these objects we would love to have, but just as we were in whispered conversation about how many would seem too greedy, the kind Collections Manager piped up from the corner with “Everything here has to go, so please feel free to take anything that you might like”. It then became a question of reigning ourselves in, and remembering how we were hoping to use the objects for education.

While it was exciting to be choosing objects to take away with us, the rows of uniforms hanging in translucent dry cleaning bags, booklets on topics from first aid to how to deal with gas attacks, bandages, feeding cups, bedpans, first aid kits and myriad other miscellaneous objects hit me with a poignancy that I had not expected.

It was the drawers full of hundreds of medals for service (sometimes engraved with the names of the individuals who had earned them) which particularly struck me. Each of these represents an individual, most likely a woman, and also likely very young, who had no idea of the outcome of the war, nor how long it would ultimately last, nor what post-war England would bring in terms of rationing and hardship.

In a small, blue “British Red Cross Society First Aid Manual No. 1”, inscribed in pencil on the overleaf with “H.G.Rutherford, spring 1939”, I discovered a clipping from a newspaper:

Sniff and Snatch it?

Yes, I mean a gas mask. A hundred letters a day and they all ask me how they’ll know the kind of gas. Here’s a reader’s way.

’Ware Gas!

If you get a choking feeling
And a smell of musty hay,
You can bet your bottom dollar
That there’s PHOSGENE on the way.

But the smell of bleaching powder
Will inevitably mean
That the enemy you’re meeting
Is the gas that’s named CHLORINE.

When your eye begins a-twitching
And for tears you cannot see,
’Tisn’t mother peeling onions
But a dose of C.A.P.

If the smell resembles pear-drops,
Then you’d better not delay,
It’s not the youngster sucking toffee,
But that tear gas K.S.K.

Should you sniff a pungent odour
As you’re going home to tea,
You can safely put your shirt on it
They’re using B.B.C.

If you see an oily liquid
On the road – be on your guard;
It isn’t where a bus was parked,
But that wicked gas MUSTARD.

Peaceful geraniums may
Look pleasant in a bed.
Dodge their scent in wartime;
It’s LEWISITE! You’re dead!

Thank you, Mr. Staniforth, of Nottingham

And grateful thanks must go to the Balfour Museum for their generosity in donating these exciting new objects to our handling collection, and for delivering them to us here in Oxford.


By Michelle Holloway, Education Officer