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RIP Dorothy Heathcote MBE

Dorothy Heathcote was a giant in the development of classroom drama, and in my previous career I was lucky enough to use her ideas often and work with her occasionally. She passed away on Saturday 8th October. I have found her ideas transferable to so many other contexts, and just about everything I do owes a big debt to her.

Dorothy Heathcote

Here is a brief handful of her inspirations:

Dorothy’s work stemmed from observing the rules children use when playing freely. This is the heart of all inclusion work – learning and using the cultural reference points your audience already has, rather than imposing your own. Our summer exhibitions strongly rely on this approach, closely observing how the space is used, then finding ways of deepening the ways children chose to play.

Trusting to the drama. This boils down to trusting the children. Dorothy would often let children explore a theme they wanted, but made sure they did it ‘her way’, so Batman became an exploration of how children could grow up to be heroes. She advocated lessons being planned like a military operation, but all that work is happily thrown out of the window when the children think up something better.

So often, children’s play, whether it is set in ancient Greece or deep space, turns out to be a metaphor for issues that they are facing here and now. Our summer exhibition has developed a more and more open structure over the years, so that the children are free to re-interpret the space and the materials in it however they wish. This means they are free to play their games, not ours, and to consciously or unconsciously explore whatever they choose.

Profligacy / parsimony. Like many of Dorothy’s concepts, the language sounds daunting, but the core of the idea makes complete simple sense. When people work together, there is a natural rhythm alternating between “profligacy” – creating lots of ideas, widening the field, then “parsimony” – filtering the range of ideas to find the best ones. This repeats, so the best ideas are developed into many possibilities, which are refined again and so on. One really important lesson from this is to end any session with the parsimonious stage – if you are in a meeting and have agreed a small number of outcomes, you can pick up from there and continue later. If, however, you stop with dozens of ideas in the air, when you re-convene, everybody will have mentally distilled their own choice of those points and the process either needs restarting or becomes competitive.

“Signing”: the art of communicating things indirectly is an important skill for a friendly exhibition. We welcome so many visitors who have never been to museums, or not to museums like this one, and we don’t want to face them with a book of rules, so the careful placing of things to sign the rules that operate is a critical design consideration. Along with signs and signifiers, Dorothy also talked about lures, gems which spark the curiosity and draw the children in. Like so many of her concepts, creating ‘lures’ is obvious common sense, but by naming and pointing these things out she enabled us to analyse our craft, share knowledge and improve.

There are a thousand more and above that a humane and no-nonsense sensibility. Her work lives on in the thousands she’s inspired.

For more about Dorothy Heathcote, visit


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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The Department for Random Requests….

Hi, I’m Jane Pudsey, Senior Conservator at the Herbert. Our team is responsible for the wellbeing of the collections, so between us we look after the environment, prepare and maintain objects on display, check incoming objects, and yes, we do some active conservation work as well. As we never know what may crop up, we keep a large selection of tools, materials and equipment, and are skilled at improvising – so much so that I’m thinking of rebranding us as ‘The Department for Random Requests’ (beeswax, table-cloths and ironing facilities this week).

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