Audience development officer Hayley Stephens, and a group of enthusiastic children. All images courtesy of Maidstone Museum.
In the past week, Hayley Stephens has had to contend with giant hissing cockroaches, mummified body parts and Victorian peg dolls, not to mention hundreds of school children. Her job? It couldn’t be anything but museum education.
In January 2006, Hayley became audience development officer at Maidstone Museum in Kent. At the time, the post had been empty for months, and the schools programme was ready for a revamp.
“We’ve added topics, but the main change has been to make the programme more interactive, with the emphasis on children’s own enquiry. We get them to think like archaeologists and scientists.”
Children are encouraged to think like "scientists and archaeologists" when engaging with artifacts.
The team offers an impressive range of education services, including a wide variety of workshops for school groups, all matched by outreach visits for schools that find it difficult to access the museum.
“We cover a wide variety of areas: Ancient Greeks, Anglo Saxons, Romans, the Tudors. We won’t cover a workshop unless we have really good artifacts to support it. And for the schools that, for whatever reason, can’t come in, we take our workshops to them, in a box.”
Replica costumes and weaponry help children to make the imaginative leap back into the past.
One of the most popular areas of study is the Ancient Egyptians, which combines historical background with plenty of colourful detail.
“The gory ones are always the most popular”, Hayley explains. “When we explain the mummification process, there’s a stage when the brain is soaked in palm oil to soften it and then pulled out by hooks through the nose. They love that! Afterwards, it’s always the bit they remember.”
Other treats to be inspected during the Ancient Egyptian workshop are a 3, 000 year old mummified hand, a mummified puppy’s head and a small crocodile, a “gross wow factor” that invariably charms the crowd.
Workshops on natural history rely on specimens from the museum's own extensive collections.
As well as school education, the team offer a wide range of activities for children during school holidays, as well as regularly hosting tie-in activities for national events such as The Big Draw and Insect Weekend (hence those giant hissing cockroaches).
Hayley’s previous post was at the Natural History Museum, where, as she ruefully observes, the education team alone outnumbered the entire staff at Maidstone Museum. But working in a smaller team is not without its excitements.
“It’s a real challenge, but you get to see all the different sides of learning, and that is very inspiring.”
Judging by the faces of the children around her, she’s not the only one to find it thrilling.
Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.