Caroline Marcus (Chair of Trustees for GEM; Senior Teaching Fellow, UCL; Lead Consultant, Kids in Museums)
On teaching adults and learning from kids
Caroline Marcus, Alina Boyko, Ekaterina Provornaya
transcript s.1 ep.3
Hello, you are listening to For Arts’ Sake, a podcast where we discover what museums are really for and what people who work there really do.
And today we are talking to Caroline Marcus, Caroline is the true museum learning guru. The range of things she does in the field is really hard to grasp. Caroline is an university lecturer, a learning consultant, a producer, an expert in Holocaust education, and an educational curator, to name but a few of Caroline's roles. Above all, she is really passionate about museum learning. She worked at some of the largest cultural institutions in London, including the National Gallery and Imperial War Museum, as well as cultural support organisations, like Kids in Museums for example.
Let's learn more about Caroline, her career path, her current interest and plans for the future. Hello.
Hello, everyone. How lovely to be here.
Thank you so much for joining us. And the number of things you do in your professional life is incredible, but could you please explain to us what is it that you currently do?
Well, first of all, I’d like to define my career as a portfolio career, because it's quite difficult, as you described in your very kind introduction, the range of things that I do, I seem to kind of be involved with lots of different cultural projects. If I was to kind of define exactly what I do at the moment, I'd say that I'm a senior teaching fellow at UCL at the Institute of Education. I teach youth students about museums and galleries in education, which I'm very passionate about. I have my own consultancy, which specialises, it's called Caroline Marcus Associates, and it specialises in learning and participation, particularly in museums, galleries, and heritage sites, so I do a whole range of projects. For example, working with organisations such as Kids in Museums, I was former director of Takeover Day for them, which is where children take over museums, galleries, and heritage sites. I think their ethos particularly resonates with me and what I do, because it's all about supporting organisations to welcome children, young people and families. And I'm particularly passionate about that. So that's just one of the projects I do. I'm currently working with the Royal Opera House, also in the area of education and learning, working with a fantastic team of evaluators, some of whom are my students, including yourselves. We are actually evaluating their family festivals and family programmes. I've recently helped Jane Austen's House Museum write their learning strategy, and recently also worked with the Royal Academy of Arts, helping them to think about their community programme. So that's kind of just a sort of summary of some of the consultancy work I do. I'm also a trustee and an advisor. I'm chair of trustees for the Group for Education in Museums, better known as GEM. And it's a membership organisation, basically championing the voice of heritage learning, and members are called Gemas, so it's very much close to my heart in terms of kind of where my particular interests and passions lie. I'm also a trustee at the National Motor Museum, which always makes me giggle, because although I know very little about vintage cars, I feel that what I can do is help visitors to engage with that collection, and hopefully, other collections. And I suppose that's where all my excitement about engaging with objects and things kind of comes from or it resonates in the work I do.
The only thing I can say is, wow. Your career is an Encyclopedia of different kinds of museums that we can ever imagine and different kinds of things, from evaluation to running huge, large-scale projects. So our question is, how did it all start for you? What's your life story? What’s the personal story behind where you are now?
Well, I think that my life story in terms of my love of museums and all things cultural goes back to probably when I was about 11 years old. I went on a school trip to Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, and my English teacher had said to the whole class, I want you to find something really interesting to bring back and to use as part of your English work back at school. So I went along to Shakespeare's birthplace and I was very, very excited about being there, you know, the house where he was born, and there was a shop there selling postcards, and I thought, interesting, but it's actually not that interesting for my English projects, I'm sure I can find something better. And I suddenly saw a chair there. There was a cushion on the chair that was clearly very old and it had lots of fraying antique threads, sort of tantalisingly hanging off it. I thought, oh, my goodness, that's the chair that Shakespeare sat his bottom on, it's the real thing, he's been there. And that material’s hanging off, what about me just taking a little bit back home with me? And I'll stick that in my English topic, which I did. And in fact, I still have the sheets of paper, which I wrote with great excitement about this piece of antique thread that Shakespeare had once kind of touched, you know, the real thing. And my English teacher wrote on it, “where on earth did you obtain this?” in inverted commas? And actually, just as a follow up to that, I was presenting at a conference and I was telling this story to conference delegates and asking people around the room where they came from. And one of the delegates said, “ah, I'm the curator from Shakespeare's birthplace and it's because of you that we have a large conservation job on our hands”. I'd like to think that things have moved on since then, and I've learned a little bit more about the reasons we shouldn't touch things or take antique threads from chairs like that. But I think that kick started my passion for museums.
Before, you mentioned different organisations, and you touched upon projects and programmes that you do, but tell us about the main audiences, who are your projects addressed to?
Well, the projects that I'm involved with, I mean, differ really whichever organisation I'm working for. So with Kids in Museums, I was particularly supporting museum educators to support children, young people and families in terms of giving them a positive welcome when they come to museums and galleries. When I worked at the National Gallery, I was lecturing and teaching from under 5s through to 99 year olds, basically all ages and I was a former access officer there, specifically working with people with disabilities, working in programming, particularly for blind and partially sighted visitors and deaf and hard of hearing visitors, with particular programmes there. I also, at UCLs Institute of Education, teach adults, such as yourselves. So I think I can honestly say that I work with every single audience and that my main remit is to be inclusive. I think very much that by sharing knowledge and understanding in plain English in accessible ways for everybody, whether you're teaching a five year old or whether you're teaching adults at university, it's the same because it's about making it accessible, it's about not using archaic or difficult or historical language, it's about just making it easy for everyone to understand.
Because as far as we understand, access is your main mission, if we generalise it, when you work in museums, you want people to get this access to collections through stories that all the museums hide. We like to talk a little bit more about one of your projects, which is Take One Picture, the project you were working on at the National Gallery. Can you tell us what was it about and what did you do there?
Yeah. So I was delighted to be curator of Take One Picture. And it's one of my favourite projects because what it does is, each year, the National Gallery chooses one painting that will be used as a creative catalyst to cross curricular learning, across all subjects in the curriculum. So rather than focusing in, for example, on just art, it basically looks at the synergies and connections between different subject areas. What was wonderful about Take One Picture, what happens is that every year there is an annual exhibition and children's work from across the UK is selected to be shown at the National Gallery as a curated exhibition. It also has a digital element as well to broaden that inclusion for as many schools as possible as well. So there is a microsite, and there is also a digital exhibition. And then there's also an actual exhibition with children's work displayed. And one of my great joys about that was that I had the pleasure of visiting many, many different schools, all kinds of different schools across the UK, and chatting with children about work that they created. So one school that I went to, I was working, children of about 10 and 11 years old were looking at Turner's painting The Fighting Temeraire, and it's all about a once great fighting ship that fought in 1805 in the Battle of Trafalgar, and then basically it was being towed to its last birth. So it was, in a sense being taken to be recycled and broken up after a glorious history of fighting in a battle, so it is quite sad in a way, as it's the end of an old era, but the excitement perhaps is starting in you. It was so refreshing to hear the head teacher at that school say, the great thing about the children at my school is I encourage them to take risks. And they certainly were taking risks. What they decided to do, using this great oak fighting ship as the creative catalyst, is they wanted to see what life was like onboard the ship. They wanted to create a table, very much 19th century, very much like the times that looked antique, which meant including the little worms, woodworms that were eating the table. And what they did was work with the local community with a father from the school who was a carpenter, the children learnt woodworking skills and they learnt how to put together mortise and tendon joints and how to create their own table using traditional crafts. But the risk taking element also involved that the carpenter taught the children how to use modern technology as well. So they wore the kind of masks and they had, I don't know what the technical words are for the machines which sparkle the sparks, and there were the children quite confidently showing me and talking to me about how they'd been upskilled and had learned these fantastic skills to create their own table, which has pride of place to this day at their school. But the brilliant thing about it was, it was risk taking, the links though were strong, not tenuous, they link back to the painting. And the children were just so proud of what they created, and I just thought this was a wonderful way to show how paintings can capture creativity. And in a cross curricular way, children can learn mathematics skills, they can learn carpentry skills, they can learn all those different things, they all coalesce and come together to create something that they are so proud of.
Absolutely, it's definitely one of my favourite projects, and I wish one day, actually more museums around the world will be able to create something like this. There is one more project that is of particular interest to us. This project is called Takeover Day. Can you please tell us more about it and what is so special about it?
Absolutely. I felt absolutely delighted and privileged to be the former director of Takeover Day, which is now a national day in the cultural sector calendar. And in fact, Takeover Day has evolved now just very recently to become two separate days. The thing about takeover days is the day when children are invited to take on adult roles in museums, galleries and heritage sites, but cultural organisations are encouraged to embed this into their regular programming, so that it doesn't become a tokenistic, one off day. It might be that they start doing it as a taster day, and then hopefully encourage organisations to embed it. And if I could just share one example with you of one of my favourite takeover days. This occurred at Stonehenge, the ancient sites, and a class of, they were secondary school students, so they were probably 11 and 12 year olds, from a local school, took over Stonehenge. The way they did that is that some of the younger people took on roles as guides at the stones. Other young people took on roles at the Neolithic replica houses, of giving guided tours there. Understanding that not all young people want to be public facing and to make it inclusive, there was the opportunity for some young people to do marketing and to think how best they would market the site. There was a social media team who, on the day, working with social media experts from Stonehenge, learnt how to blog, learnt how to put together at very short notice, a news report, which they then gave life to radio on the day. And they also had to tweet throughout the day, so they were social media experts. So they really learned under quite a lot of pressure, all the skills that are involved in real jobs. And some of the young people took on roles of evaluators and working face to face with visitors and asking them to do exit interviews when they left the site. What was fantastic, there's a young man there called Sean, who basically sort of, I saw him visibly grow with pride throughout the day. He said at the beginning, I felt a little bit embarrassed to walk up to people at the stones and to ask them did they want a tour, and we discussed ways that he could perhaps do that more confidently and say to people, it would be very short because some people were saying oh, no, we haven't got enough time, thank you very much. So we thought of ways to capture people's attention and to make it short and snappy. The young people had learnt all about Stonehenge back at school as proper researchers, and visitors were captivated. And when I say visitors, these were the regular tourists from all over the world who were coming to an iconic heritage site. This was not a special one off day where the children were given a sort of closed site, sort of just do it to their families or to the schools. This was done to tourists who absolutely loved it.
Well, to me, it sounds absolutely fascinating. I would love to take part. But how do you organise such an event?
Well, it's very much teamwork. So always with Kids in Museums, there's a fantastic team who work to liaise with museums, galleries, and heritage sites to try to get them on board through conversations. So it could be at networking events, or it could be at Takeover Day, training days specially held to support people in the sector to run such days. Kids in Museums has got a fantastic social media presence as well. So it very much uses the popularity of social media to bring people on board and to understand the benefits of doing something like this, where you're really raising young people's aspirations, you're giving people at museums and galleries and heritage sites, who might be a little bit nervous sometimes about working with young people, you're giving them the confidence to work with young people, and you're giving young people the agency to do it. I think young people as ambassadors will talk about Takeover Day. So it's a little bit like a network of working together towards a positive, common goal. And as I said, it's now in the cultural calendar. So a lot of people are on board about it. There's now a new training Bank of films to support people running their first takeover days as well. And that's just very recently been launched.
I think that not only do the children benefit from taking part in Takeover Days and taking over museums, but also the visitors. I had the pleasure to be part of Takeover Day at the Wallace Collection back in 2018, and I saw how the process was managed and how children also took over different roles from shop assistants to front of house and tour guides. And it was incredible. I saw people walking into the museum, feeling so welcoming and feeling... Not only do they feel that it's a cute child, waving to you and saying hello, but also they had a new perspective on the collection from the side of a child, you know, they pick their own objects to present. That's really interesting, this a dual benefit for both visitors and also the participants. I think it's great.
Absolutely. And also the professionalism and raising aspirations of children as well about the excitement and the joy that a heritage site can bring. If I could just mention with the Wallace collection, that what started out as a small takeover day with children from a local primary school, becoming curators for the day, that has now been embedded into their regular programming. It is absolutely remarkable because the children are exceptionally knowledgeable and they've had wonderful training from curators, education staff at the Wallace collection that has given them the confidence to share in a professional capacity to the general public on a regular basis.
It's really interesting that you have a chance to observe how these things are developed in different organisations, because you are connected to so many museums, galleries and cultural institutions across the UK, and I'm sure potentially globally, and maybe I don't know about you, but you're lecturing at the UCL and I wouldn't say you are lecturing, you're actually inspiring the new generation of museum educators. So you have a portfolio career. Could you explain to us the benefits of being an independent artist, an independent worker, rather than being a staff member of a specific institution?
That's a very interesting question. I think, for me, it's the diversity of the range of projects that I'm involved with as an independent consultant, or as a, you know, a portfolio career or part time, permanent work working for organisations. And I love the diversity of what I do. So I've worked before in permanent part time positions at places like the Jewish Museum as head of education. I would like to say that, I think just in this age of flexibility as well, that we're talking about freelancers a lot in terms of career development, that it is possible that there are flexible models that can work in senior management positions today as well. I think that people need to be mindful of those and organisations need to be responsive to being more flexible, and seeing the opportunities. So just to return to your question, I think for me, I love the diversity of the different roles that I dip in and out of. I also love the networking opportunities. So as chair of Group for Education in Museums, I think it's really important for me to support others in the sector, which is why I enjoy my teaching at UCL so much, and enjoy, hopefully, sharing my passion with you so that the next generation are...
You are doing really well. Thank you so much.
The next generation of museum educators can hopefully inspire their audiences to be curious to discover, to explore, to participate, all of those things. Working with Sector Support organisations, like Kids in Museums and like Group for Education in Museums, gives me a fantastic opportunity to be able to work with people in small volunteer led museums, through to large nationals, and to see the differences, but also the kind of shared commonalities between the organisations. The joy for me is that my area has always been about learning and participation. And what's fantastic is that there is a community of people sharing, and learning seems to elicit this kind of joy of wanting to do the best for audiences to be inclusive, to share our collections. I think it's just great being networked, to be able to share that together as a community of best practice.
Because we noticed that actually in the sector, having talked to different people, we’ve noticed that a lot of them choose to go freelance. Do you think this is somehow characteristic of the museum learning field?
I would say that I'm a freelancer at heart, and for much of my career, I have been a freelancer and work with many, many freelancers. It's very common to the cultural and heritage sector. And that is a choice. It's not that people haven't just got permanent roles. Obviously, it's sometimes a very challenging sector to get permanent roles in. But there's also many people who actively choose to be freelance. I think that's really important to recognise in the sector. I also think that unfortunately, due to an age of austerity, and due to various cuts over the years, perhaps the model has changed and shifted less from permanent roles in museums, to unfortunately, sometimes part time contracts in museums, or more readily and creatively using freelancers to do discrete projects in organisations. And that then creates the diversity again, that people like myself particularly enjoy, across different museums and different projects.
You teach people of all ages, and kids and adults. Who is more fun?
I genuinely couldn't say who is more fun because every audience is different in a way. I think all I'd say is that sometimes, sadly, adults get that curiosity knocked out of them a little bit. And it's our role as museum educators to bring that back to life a little bit and to stimulate that curiosity again. And the amount of times that I hear adults saying, wow, I just didn't know that could be so much fun, or, oh, that multi-sensory tour with the kind of a room of sticks and looking at the painting and finding out those amazing, interesting historical facts which we never knew. If you have somebody sharing in an interesting way, in a way that is accessible, then often adults have that spark reignited that sometimes I think they've lost. So I would say both audiences are equally as fun, but perhaps at different times.
Another on behalf of Kids in Museums, you organised the carnival, the festival theme comes up every now and then in our interviews, and from what we understand it's one of the best ways to engage people in education. But tell us why you chose this particular format?
The festival, the carnival?
Yeah, the carnival.
Kids in Museums at the time wanted to celebrate the diversity of the different kinds of projects in museums, galleries, and heritage sites that children had been involved with, particularly in relation to its family friendly museum award. So it wanted to showcase the different family friendly types of best practice that were going on all across the UK. But we wanted to do it in a way that was playful and less formal than some networking events tend to be. So we were lucky enough to work alongside Tate Exchange, and to create a carnival feel. So we had young people talking about their particular projects, for example, filmmaking projects. We had creative tables so that professionals in the museum sector could come and sit and create and make and chat and talk and network in a way that involved them in participatory learning. We wanted this really just to have a feel of being playful, of being fun, being like a carnival of good practice, and also an opportunity for people to feel relaxed enough to share by maybe looking at postcards to stick on a wall, to say ways that kids and museums could support people in the sector in the future. So it was for that reason really, just to make it a carnival feel better. But a lot of museums at the moment and arts organisations are doing festivals. Many galleries, rather than doing a one off children's event, for example, when I say a one off, a weekly children's event, they might do a big extravaganza. The Royal Opera House, for example, has just very recently had, for example, a pride festival, which was absolutely remarkable in terms of the different types of opera that was introduced to families at this particular event. And Raqueen’s telling stories to under fives, a real celebration of pride and community, which was really exciting. And lots of similar festivals are going on elsewhere.
Your career is so inspiring. But if we take a look, if we travelled back in time, did you have any negative experiences when kick starting as a professional in the museum sector?
I definitely did actually. I remember for example, I went for a job in education at the British Library, and I was very disappointed because I wasn't offered the role. I think what I'd say is turn if you can, learn from negative experiences and turn them into positive opportunities. Because the interesting thing there, at the time I was a holocaust educator, and I, at interview had discussed my role in Holocaust education. And a couple of months after the interview, they rang me up and said, we have got a project that we wondered whether you might be interested in doing, would it interest you and in fact, they asked me to write a web resource called Voices of the Holocaust for the British Library website. So that was one thing. And then I also remember, I think it's particularly relevant to share this with you as you are students on the course that I'm now teaching, I never saw myself as becoming an academic and working in the academic field. For me, I'm a practitioner who's passionate about museums and galleries. However, what I found was that in the past that I started applying for a few jobs, and realised that I didn't even get past the screening level of some of these jobs, even though I had over 15 years experience in the sector at the time, because I didn't have an MA in gallery education. And therefore I thought, ok, should I do an MA? And I thought, do I really need to? I've got all this experience, is that necessary? And after a lot of thought, and a bit of reluctance, I decided to do, in fact, the course that I'm now teaching on, which is the MA Museums and Galleries in Education, and what I realised was that I had a lot of practical experience, but I didn't have the theoretical knowledge and understanding at the time. I remember being really stretched and challenged to, at some points my limit, to a point that I almost considered maybe is this the right course for me at the beginning, because I found some of the theory really, really difficult, which I hope you as my students will recognise that I tried to reassure you at the beginning, don't be despondent, about, you know, some of the complexity of the theory that's related and particularly with international students as well. Trying to learn a lexicon of a new language of museology, alongside writing essays and assignments in a second language is really, really challenging. But I stuck with it, and it's one of the best things for me that I ever did, because, ironically, by keeping in touch with the people who led the course, and through me being a visiting lecturer on occasions, it ended up with me taking over some sick leaves and eventually leading to this permanent position and working with lovely people like you.
So inspiring Caroline, thank you so much for sharing this. We have the last question here. And the question is, if you had unlimited funding, what museum or cultural space would you build?
I would build a museum of commonalities, a museum of universal themes. And it would be a museum that contains old master paintings, contemporary art, objects, archive materials, it would be a museum that stimulates curiosity, but celebrates our humanity together, people. We are curious, I hope, about each other, we want to find out more. And more often than not, I think in today's society, it's about our differences rather than our commonalities. And what I'd like to see is people really working together. If I could just tell you about one object I'd want in my museum. Manchester museum has a refugee life jacket. And I think that is such a powerful and resonant symbol which has so many different lines of inquiries that can be shared, the stories of moving migration, of journeys, of what it means to be other or alien. I mean, I'm just using terms that are used all the time, but at the heart, it's about our commonalities, it is about our human sides and our nature. I feel that objects like that could trigger so much the commonalities between us. I'd see it as a space where I'd be welcoming people from every kind of faith, community, colour, it would be a diverse hotchpotch of inclusive for everybody being there, a place to explore, a place to get involved, a place to eat together, sharing foods from different cultures and just realising that we have so much in common. I think that's the idealistic optimistic side of me of just trying to make the world a better place. And I just like to finish in a way, the Museums Association has the campaign Museums Change Lives, and I really believe that museums can change lives, and that there can be remarkable positive social impact that comes out of working in environments like these, safe spaces where we can debate, we can engage, we can reflect together, we can make better communities, work with communities to create a better world. And that would be my vision for my museum.
What a beautiful vision that is, Caroline. Thank you so much.
Today we spoke with Caroline Marcus, an amazing professional and a great human. Thank you so much, and stay tuned. We'll see you next week with a new episode.