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There have been some fantastic new species dreamed up by visitors to Walking with Beasts, including this Coloursaurus! We’ve enjoyed them and hope you do too!

Via Flickr:
Name of researcher: Tyler
Food source: bones
Height: 10m
Notes on behaviour: wild

Don’t forget – you can add your own creations to our My Herbert Flickr group:


Me and my friend Half Tooth!

Summer has arrived with an almighty heat wave, but the rising temperatures are not stopping us from working away to get everything ready for what should be a fun, and rather silly summer around the museum.

For me, that involved heading into schools across Coventry again for another assembly, this time focusing on our Walking with Beasts exhibition from the BBC. I’m really excited about this exhibition; it’s been lots of fun researching for the assembly so now the exhibition is open I can make sense of the rather long names associated with some of the animals featured in there (I mean Australopithecus…really???).

As part of this assembly I was kindly offered some objects from the BBC, that were used in filming, to take into the schools with me to show the pupils. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, so when 2 men walked into the office carrying the head of a Sabre Tooth Cat and a Gastornis I was a little taken aback. They were so much bigger than I had expected, but look absolutely incredible. Even though I knew they were not the real thing and only made as replicas for the TV series, I still found it creepy to touch them, probably because taxidermy freaks me out, and these honestly do seem more real than some of the actual taxidermy animals we have in the museum… just don’t tell the curators I said that! Regardless of how life-like they are, we couldn’t resist having a few silly pictures taken with them around the office before they got boxed up ready to be taken with me on my travels around the city.

It also wouldn’t be summer prep time without our annual cutting up day with the family learning officer, Mel, as she gets ready for the influx of families coming in to the arts and crafts sessions during the holidays. Kitchen rolls, egg boxes and plastic bottles are being collected and lots of paper and templates have been cut to size and I think it was all worth it when we have children give us excellent results including a very snazzy Harry Potter themed castle! There will be lots more to come over the summer so keep checking what’s on everyday for you to get involved with.

Musings on the nature of things

There’s just one week to go before we start installing “Wild Worlds” the Herbert’s summer exhibition aimed at families. From last year’s “In the Big Treetop” installation we discovered that mole-hill shaped piles of MDF shapes were incredibly alluring to children. Many children just wanted to stand on top of them, or jump from one to the next, or claim them as ‘territory’. We also observed toddlers just beginning to walk would hang on to mum’s hand and walk back and forth over them again and again, seeming to love how they were irregular, yet dependable.

Lindsay, one of our learning team who has heaps of experience as an artist in early years’ settings, told us she found platforms offered something special, that there is almost a taboo on playing off the ground while indoors.

Our designers have taken these ‘floor blobs’ and put them at the core of our installation this year, and we can only wait to see how well they work.

I’ve observed a category of things (for which I don’t have a name) which seem to work especially well in creative play. These things need to be both unfamiliar and immediately understood by children. A mini-hill of layers of MDF is something quite new, but they understand what it does very rapidly. They sometimes check if the pieces come apart, or if it slides on the floor – both critical qualities to understand how safe it is – and then walk across it, stand on top as if it is a mountain, all with complete confidence.

Another example we’ve used repeatedly are wooden pebbles. We made these from light timber from packing crates, all differently shaped, but roughly the shapes and sizes of seaside pebbles. Children immediately understand what they do and don’t do, and they are collected, arranged, hidden and balanced on top of each other.

Perhaps lengths of cloth fall into this category – children can wrap themselves, build dens, create rivers or skies, but often they check for permission, possibly because different rules apply to cloth (eg curtains) at home.

These sorts of objects are dramatically neutral – they can be used to represent anything at all, and don’t exclude themselves from any sort of fictional game. Things which are more clearly themed, for example a badger hand puppet, would be far harder to include in an undersea world.

I suspect there are some interesting reflections on the wider context of a museum, the place devoted to the idea of things having meaning, but I’ll ponder on that another time.

Musings on the day we hand over the baton of Kids in Museums Guardian Family Friendly Museum of the Year to Mansfield . . .

Last month our Senior Learning Officer, Robin Johnson,  left for pastures new.  He had been here for many years, and his leaving ‘do’ featured several moving and poignant speeches by time served colleagues.   Despite working here for over 7 years, these accolades revealed new dimensions to the Herbert’s history and development and set me thinking.

Robin had joined as a former teacher, but without a specific responsibility to schools.   He joined at a similar time to several other key staff, particularly among our curators.   As Robin developed his interest in making the museum a vibrant resource for schools, his colleagues were clearly on-side, and he was given an encouraging free hand by his manager.   These values were already shared and ingrained in the organisation when new opportunities appeared, such as the “Renaissance” funding and the redevelopment.  

I’ve struck thinking the concept of leadership for our creative and curatorial work.  There feels to be very little influence from the high echelons of management on creative planning, programmes of family workshops, the summer early years exhibition and other events.  I think this is because these principles are shared so widely, so there is no need to enforce these values.  It also supports so many different agendas – drawing in big numbers, offering a unique and genuinely useful service to local people, filling gaps in the activities offered across the city, being welcoming to newcomers to Coventry and the UK . . .   It’s a ‘no brainer’.  

Talking to colleagues with experience of other museums, it seems that we’ve got it easy.   It is not uncommon for inclusion and family work to have to fight its corner against some notion of curatorial purity.   Here it has been built into every corner by the curators themselves.  There is a democratic sense doing family work that I can look to wisdom from almost everyone – from the curators suggesting facts about objects that might appeal to children, to our Front of House team feeding back how families respond to what we offer.

“Family Friendly” seems to be flavour of the month in museums (and long may it remain so).   At the Herbert, these values came from principles and never from fashion.  I’m glad to say museum staff aren’t famed for their fashion sense and we’ll stick with what’s right and sensible.

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February half term is coming!

Finally after months of preparations we are ready to open our doors to the hundreds of families we are expecting over the next few months. We have already had our first schools through the doors earlier in the week, but next week it will be the turn of our family visitors as they explore our Secret Egypt exhibition and take part in our hands-on family activities over February half term and beyond.

Egyptian ActivityMy main priority as Family Learning Officer was to provide a variety of workshops that will encourage our families to explore and engage with the themes within our Secret Egypt exhibition. This is not always as easy as it sounds as there are so many different ages, tastes and abilities to suit! This is where working as part of the Learning Team is of great benefit as all our research for the schools sessions, including many visits to other galleries and museums, has helped to positively shape the plans for the family programme.  Here I was able to identify what topics to focus on, what had the most potential to be developed into creative workshops and what would further encourage learning outside of the classroom.

I have tried to use all this new knowledge and research to work on the content for the next 20 workshops which cover all the holidays from now until June, early years sessions and the ‘bring your dad’ event day!.

 This has included:

  • Working on the content first and then with the designers on the look and layout of a family trail that encourages visits all the permanent galleries, promotes the use of our Secret Egypt family break out space (more details below) and also combines with an art and craft activity that we will then use to create a fantastic Egyptian display to show our other visitors!
  •  Ordering stacks of unusual and exciting materials, cutting up decorative papers, metals and card, working out templates and making examples, all to make sure we are all prepared for our very popular art and craft sessions.
  •  Co-ordinating the use of our Studio space so our family visitors can use it as an extra activity/break out area. Here we have designed a make-and-take activity that can be done without the need for a facilitator! So, if the activity room downstairs or the exhibition becomes too full, then there is always an area for families to go and do something.
  •  Learning about our 3000 year old Egyptian artefacts and how to use this information for family object handling sessions. Our families will get the chance to handle genuine objects and try on costume that would have been used by ancient Egyptians.

Printing off hundreds of trails, writing up marketing content and working on a timetable for our family activity facilitators has meant for a very busy 6 months. I am now really looking forward to the families coming in and being able to enjoy the benefits of a lot of hard work for such a fantastic exhibition!

We look forward to welcoming you!

Mel, Family Learning Officer
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Hue and sky

One of the joys of this job is the range of work we take on, and how it is so easy to be intensely focused on one task while your colleagues are immersed in quite different ones.  The storm and buzz of our forthcoming exhibitions All Dressed Up  and Secret Egypt have largely ignored me, which his just as well given we have Spotlight: Belsen Head fast approaching and the planning for our summer early years exhibition started to gather speed.

Spotlight: Belsen Head continues a thread of exhibitions focussed on a single powerful object, in this case a recently acquired sculpture by Raymond Mason.  We’ve asked some local artists to create responses to the piece, and I feel their approach is testament to the quality of the local arts community, that we have artists prepared to accept the challenge of this commission.  I feel pride in the way Coventry marks Holocaust Memorial Day each year, and it sometimes shocks me that I am part of that process.

Although, on the face of it, completely different, we take our summer exhibition for early years just as seriously as commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.

Over the past 8 years, we have been able to explore how a gallery can offer creative play opportunities, and to consciously experiment and push boundaries.  We’ll keep most details secret for now, but we are building on developments in 2010’s In the Big Treetop especially in the use of off-ground structures and light.  We’ve invested in more multicoloured lamps, and while the Studio was quiet over New Year, we built a test bed “Iglow” to try out lighting effects – the sense of movement feels wonderful in this clip:

Another area we are exploring is how we can make the growing field of pervasive gaming appropriate to the family and early years audiences we receive throughout the summer.  Lots of reading, then lots of trialling and, lets face it, lots of playing, to do on this one.

The office windows behind the Herbert open onto a strange landscape, particularly with the recent weather.  When I raise my eyes from my screen, I am greeted by a steel sky, grey-clad university buildings and high grey lamp posts on the ring-road.   At the front of the building we have the richer palette and sharper details of the Cathedrals, yet this wash of subtle greys offers an urban alternative to the coastal landscapes evocative of 20th century heroes such as Britten and Jarman..  



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Jack’s August blog . . .

The Big TreeTop installation for families is almost over and last week I gathered our team of facilitators around some cake to reflect on strengths and weaknesses.   One area where I feel we’ve learned a little more is in the nature of ‘Family Learning’ which for us means activities which engage the adults alongside the children. 

So in our gallery installation, adults and children playing together = good; adults as spectators = bad. 

One influence on this is seating which we place in a way that encourages participation with the children.  Last year the main seating was a giant tree-root (with a tunnel underneath) – and although it kept adults in the centre of the installation, their position meant they were looking out, rather than into the space.   This year we have some rather funky low cane seats that can be used anywhere in the space.  

We try to alter the gallery each day, so our regular visitors have a change in colours, layout and materials – and every morning the seats will be clustered around activities such as dressing up, sorting or soft toys.   But so often they are quickly moved to the walls where adults can be spectators (bad!)

Or so I thought . . .  I’ve talked to so many parents recently who have said that just having 30 minutes without having to answer endless questions is a blessed respite.  How can that be wrong?  

‘Family learning’ and ‘respite for worn-out parents’ seem to be mutually contradictory, but most of what we see in the space is so positive and there doesn’t seem to be a problem.   So far I am not sure how this spectrum of engagement amongst adults should influence our planning for next year  – I think like a lot of aspects of In the Big TreeTop, we can try to send subtle signals about how to get the best out of the space, but we won’t impose rules.    Thankfully we have plenty of time work that one out for 2011.


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