Museums are no longer merely depositories for artefacts, artwork and record; they are places to further the education of young people, writes National Gallery of the Cayman Islands Director Natalie Urquhart.
Museums have come a long way over the past several decades. Once inaccessible treasure troves collecting objects for the sake of acquisition and scholarship, a central aspect of their work now lies in ensuring that their collections (both tangible and intangible) are fully accessible to their audiences. The emphasis is placed on the museum not as depository, but as an educational tool in the service of societal development.
Not surprisingly, museums and art galleries are now considered to be amongst the most effective places to enrich what is being taught in school. Their collections are representative examples of what is taught in the classroom. Objects on display are surrounded by contextual and interpretive materials and storytelling and they have the ability to arouse interest and curiosity by bringing history alive.
Here in Cayman we are fortunate enough to have several cultural institutions – The National Museum, the National Gallery, Cayman National Cultural Foundation, The National Trust, Cayman Islands National Archive to name a few – each with vibrant and interactive education programmes that are specifically designed to encourage exploration of Cayman’s unique heritage. Through a combination of school tours, exhibitions, publications, festivals, performances, and workshops, they offer a wealth of learning resources available at little to no cost to schools and general visitors.
At the National Museum, the education department, while relatively young, has a developed a wide ranging series of activities inspired by their cultural and natural history collections. Students can interact with the changing temporary exhibitions in the purpose built Children’s Gallery – the first of its kind in Cayman – dress in traditional costumes and enjoy historical dramatisations, storytelling, skits, dances, and puppetry.
The Cultural Foundation offers a wide variety of programmes throughout the year focusing on the full spectrum of Caymanian artistic and cultural activities such as drama, film, storytelling, dance, music, thatch plaiting and traditional craft projects. Students are provided with opportunities to meet community elders and to learn the traditional methods of rope making and thatching, once intrinsic to our way of life.
Following its mandate to preserve both the natural environments and places of historic significance in the Cayman Islands, The National Trust offers year-round school tours and activities to educate children about the native flora and fauna, the plight of our Blue Iguana, environmental sustainability, along with the traditions, buildings and crafts of yesteryear.
The National Archive is dedicated to preserving the documentary history of our Islands and has almost countless archival records, photos and oral history housed in their small facility. While there is little room for large scale on-site displays, the National Archive staff has a long-standing school programme where students can listen to oral histories, peruse early 20th Century photos and even take home their own facsimile of historical documents and maps.
The new National Gallery facility has enabled staff to widen the scope of its already busy education schedule. Students are able to visit the permanent collection, which showcases a 40-year spectrum of Caymanian Art History, and learn about all aspects of life in the Cayman Islands. To support a visit to the collections, the National Gallery offers cross-curricular activity guides along a variety of themes such as Maritime Heritage, Family and Community and Architectural History, each designed to compliment the school curriculum. School groups can also use the Susan Olde Art Studio and Dart Auditorium for follow-up on-site classroom activities.
The effect of a lively and interactive visit to one of the above organisations on the participating students is significant. Students have the opportunity to work and do research with first-hand sources; to participate in the active learning process; to engage in role playing; to improve skills such as observation, research, assessment, empathy, social participation and creativity; and to enjoy learning in more animate, living environments.
Importantly, these resources can be used as inspiration across a range of subjects. History, art and science have the most obvious links, but literacy, numeracy, citizenship, geography and drama can all be taught to great effect with the imaginative use of local museum resources.