Inspiration, identity, learning: the value of museums

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the (then) Department for Education and Skills (DfES) commissioned twelve projects through the Strategic Commissioning Programme 2003-2004: National/Regional Museum Education Partnerships consisting of museum education partnerships between national and regional museums. DCMS commissioned RCMG to evaluate the impact of this programme, with a focus on the learning outcomes for pupils and community members.

Aims and objectives

The aim of the programme was to:

  • Encourage partnerships between museums and the educational sector
  • Work towards community building
  • Promote high quality provision for schools through sharing expertise and resources

The evaluation included a number of different methods and approaches. Early visits were made to all lead partners, and all project plans were reviewed. The evaluation analysed school use of museums through questionnaires for teachers and children, which focused on the impact of learning. Selected case-studies of component strands of eight projects were developed to pursue the impact on learning for communities, and to probe the impact on schools more deeply. These case-studies involved visits, interviews, group discussions, observations, review of documents and review of outputs of learning (for example animations, paintings and photographs).

RCMG's research methodology was structured in relation to the five Generic Learning Outcomes. These shared a close relationship with the desirable and measurable outcomes as identified by DCMS for their education and community programmes.

Key findings

This research gives both a perspective of the national impact of museum education and a view of the extent to which this may be seen as contributing social value. Many participants found the projects inspirational and motivating. Pupils enjoyed their workshops with paintings and artefacts and found museum buildings exciting and different. They were inspired to produce high quality art-work, to explore scientific concepts and to link their old and new experiences.

The twelve projects demonstrated the ambitions of museums to work towards social justice, to play a significant and useful social and educational role, and to inspire their visitors. These were aspirational projects, working towards community cohesion and social inclusion. These aspirations are very well embedded in the philosophies that inform the work of many museum educators and curators, and this programme represented an opportunity to put these long-held philosophies into practice. This was achieved through designing projects that aspired to community cohesion, targeting schools in areas of deprivation, working with vulnerable groups and individuals, and working towards the inspiration and empowerment of participants through increased self-esteem and sense of identity. Museums worked with new audiences such as refugees and asylum seekers, and addressed issues such as the racism and the legacy of the slave trade. Museums targeted their educational provision towards schools in some of the most deprived wards in England and the take-up from these schools was very high.

While museums are changing, becoming more in tune with contemporary issues and more aware of their social potential, the DCMS/DfES programme shows how the social value of museums can be enhanced far beyond what is currently expected.  This research provides examples of the extraordinary power of museums and their collections, but also shows clearly some of the challenges that museums face in realising this power.

Outcomes