The Untapped Potential of Museums and Libraries

Museums and libraries share a common ancestor with technical colleges through the Mechanics’ Institutions of the 19th century which offered workers the opportunity to improve their skills and acquire new scientific and technological knowledge. It’s also worth reminded that their history includes 19th century endowment by wealthy entrepreneurs who wanted to contribute to the education and cultural enrichment of the population across all ages and classes. Clearly with such a historical heritage it seems natural to more fully exploit the benefits that these different organisations can each offer to engender a learning society and a culture of lifelong learning. With the rapid development of the internet and accessing information online there are now many exciting opportunities to develop a powerful networked information society exploiting and networking the respective strengths of libraries, museums and educational institutions. After all each organisation offers excellent learning environments which are further enhanced as they develop more self-directed approaches to learning both formally and informally.

Sadly the real potential and benefits of working together has yet to be fully realised by these sectors. Although it must be said that many museums especially the national and larger regional museums do make substantial educational provision but much more can be done particularly during this period of austerity and retrenchment. An excellent example is Eureka – The National Children’s Museum which is an interactive educational museum for children up to the age of 11 and based in Halifax in West Yorkshire and founded twenty years ago and encourages parental involvement by way of learning through play. Museums and libraries can provide a rich fund of archived information for research – collecting and displaying a wider range of archived material, information and objects than could possibly be present let alone be accommodated in the average classroom. They can provide contexts e.g. historical/social etc, make links with everyday life and the world of work. Students can visit to carry out investigative work for assignments and with the increasing use of the Internet in education in education, most libraries and museums now offer additional knowledge, information and data in a variety of formats to the remote on-line user. The resources available in the libraries and museums are often very extensive and complement what the educational institutions possess and most certainly can add value to the overall experience of the learners. Resources range from the provision of rare and precious objects, practical information, lists of the learning resources that are available, on-line exhibitions, detailed information about their collections and on-line events. Museums and libraries can represent massive and valuable reservoirs of information for students and the wider community. The rapid developments in information and communication technology have created real opportunities to establish interactive experiences for the learners either individually or in teams.

Too often people in the past, libraries and museums have been perceived as boring, dull, distant places and at times exclusive and elitist but surely nothing could be further from the truth – they can be exciting, attractive, add value to students learning and even be inspirational. Libraries and museums possess a wealth of learning resources that could be more fully exploited by educational institutions if stronger strategic partnerships were formed. These could bring about many benefits not only in education but also to the wider community. Even in these times of austerity the key success factor is the effective management of the partnerships which must be conducted in an open and equitable manner in order to bring about value for money and a win- win result for all parties. This means sharing some staff roles across the three types of institutions and in adopting the principle of reciprocity, educational institutions could provide opportunities for staff exchange as well as courses for library and museum staff; indeed shared staff training would be a must.

Such partnerships would provide people whether in study or not with more extensive learning opportunities that would improve and expand their range of skills and quality of life in general and bring subjects and ideas to life.  Key questions need to be addressed including what information resources are required to support the learner and the new models of learning? The staff would also need to become more versatile and adopt multi-disciplinary skills, work more in teams across institutions and manage and utilise the new technologies.   The respective partners could develop extensive integrated networked information systems. This coordinated approach could bring about many benefits and make a major contribution to the effectiveness of learning and teaching in the education and training sectors. The strategic partnership could also forge much stronger links with the community across all age groups and possibly recapture the mechanics’ institutions philosophy and some of the more open-minded Victorian entrepreneurialism!

Nov 2012


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