‘Informal’ object-based engagement and ‘formal’ accredited learning

14 February 2014

Reflections on the Talking Objects Collective at the British Museum.

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(Image credit: British Museum website)

The Talking Objects Collective programme at the British Museum is a youth engagement programme, bringing young people together with the British Museum’s collections in support of their accredited learning.

The methodology encourages a more personalised, active, and self-directed experience, supporting individual participants to take from the project what is most meaningful to them. Whilst these are characteristics perhaps most often associated with ‘informal’ learning, the project also acts as a support and focus for ‘formal’ learning with distinct learning outcomes and criteria. The ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ learning elements of the Talking Objects project reflect how these two approaches to learning can successfully complement one another.

Throughout a Talking Objects project, young people aged 16-24 are encouraged to explore the many stories of an object in focus, currently the iconic medieval chess pieces, the Lewis Chessmen.

The Lewis Chessmen offer a springboard for the development of creative, personal, and professional skills, and provide the inspiration for a creative project that supports the qualification the young people are completing.

Each project is tailored to the individual needs of the group, drawing on different expertise at the Museum. Around six-eight sessions are held, both at the Museum or partner organisation, over a period of a few months. An initial ‘Inspiration Day’ introduces the objects and their stories, and allows the participants to explore issues and questions raised. A series of object-based and skills-based sessions then follow, and participants are encouraged to pursue their ideas and continue their work beyond the Museum.

The aims and outcomes

Through working with various partner organisations, the project has seen previous groups create Chessmen-inspired jewellery designs as part of their Diploma in Jewellery Manufacture, design sculptural artworks based on the craft and themes of the Chessmen, make short documentaries as part of BTEC Creative Media, and explore the relationship between chess and football as part of qualifications in referee and coaching.

The project aims to support young people to achieve their qualifications through a creative focus, whilst supporting the development of lifelong personal and professional skills, and employability skills.

We have mostly been working with young people who are re-engaging with education or those who are seeking more vocational pathways into work. The programme also aims to expose young people to the many jobs within the museum and creative sector, and explore alternative routes into its range of careers.

When Talking Objects began, the programme did not specifically engage with accredited learning. Between 2009 and 2011, Talking Objects London brought young people together with different objects in the British Museum’s collection to unpack the objects’ stories and find a contemporary relevance for the young people.

These projects empowered young people to creatively respond to objects and confidently express their opinions and ideas, building their confidence in accessing museums and collections. A few of these projects did in fact work with organisations offering accredited learning and these projects were very successful. The programme was subsequently developed to work in collaboration with organisations offering ‘formal’ accredited learning programmes which, in the increasingly challenging economic climate, are perhaps more needed.

Tackling youth unemployment

Youth unemployment has jumped to nearly one million, and a fifth of 16 to 24 year olds are on unemployment benefit. Securing the necessary skills and experience that lead to employment for young people continues to be increasingly challenging.

Recent research into youth unemployment at the Princes Trust revealed that more than three quarters of a million young people aged 16-25 agreed with the statement: "I have nothing to live for".

Securing employment is not just a means to make money but affects the overall wellbeing of young people. Talking Objects seeks to work with organisations who are offering accredited learning programmes for young people who are re-engaging with education or are at risk of falling out of education and employment. For those young people for whom a traditional formal learning setting has not been most effective, informal programmes in the arts and heritage sector can provide a creative solution.

Whilst Talking Objects aims to support the learning of young people, participation in the programme can also impact on a more general approach to lifelong learning.

A New Direction’s recent research paper ‘Cultural Engagement by Young Londoners’ tells us that young people Not in Education, Employment or Training are less likely to access cultural events. Informal learning in museums can begin to break down barriers that young people are facing in accessing the arts and in developing confidence in accessing collections and museums. In actively participating in arts and culture, young people can through this be supported to find their voice and become confident in identifying and acting on what they want in life. The above study also revealed that ‘teachers remain crucial players in catalysing and nurturing arts engagement’. Talking Objects and programmes such as this can provide new inspiration and new contexts within accredited learning settings where young people are empowered to lead their own experience, beneficial not only for their personal lives but also for their accredited learning.

The Talking Objects Collective has been testing a bespoke digital platform as well as different social media to explore how young people might expand their learning online. Digital media has the potential to offer expanded engagement with objects and their stories, as collections can be more widely distributed, and can offer a more open space for dialogue. The bespoke website has so far provided a resource for research beyond the Museum, a discussion space, and a showcase for the work of previous groups. It is a space where young people can learn from each other, and access resources related to the objects in their own time and in their own ways.

Museums can act as a valuable resource for all kinds of learning, for audiences with many different wants and needs, and museums have a lot to offer young people in very meaningful ways. The theoretical separation of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning is not necessarily productive but where they are perceived to be distinct approaches, Talking Objects is revealing there is much room for them to complement one another in more explicit ways.

Can you help us?

Talking Objects Collective is looking for partners to work with in Spring/Summer and Autumn this year! If you are, or know, an organisation offering accredited programmes for young people aged 16-24 from the northwest London boroughs and might be interested in working together, please get in touch with Lorna.

For more information about the Talking Objects project, please see the website or contact Lorna.

Talking Objects is funded by John Lyon’s Charity.

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