Hands on, Minds on

August 15, 2019

Secondary school students at a V&A learning event. ©Trustees of the V&A

What is the link between practical creativity and museum learning? And how can we use this to enhance engagement and learning in museums? This question was a key point of focus in a recent V&A Research Institute’s recent three day symposium entitled ‘Encounters on the Shop Floor: Embodiment and the Knowledge of the Maker’ .

This stemmed from an ongoing AHRC collaborative research project at the V&A that explores the links between making and learning in partnership with Imperial College London, University College London (UCL), the Arts Workers Guild, the Royal College of Music, Tate and a group of artists, makers and performers. The symposium explored the significance of the knowledge of the maker and of ‘learning by doing’, aiming to develop strategies for recognising, showcasing and championing the value and usability of this knowledge within learning in an educational climate which increasingly eschews creative know-how. How might we harness the physicality of expert ceramicists, performers, musicians, artists and others in their ability to understand the link between making and embodied learning? Just as children learn by imitation and play, we need to champion the importance of motor skills and haptic making for museum education.

This was echoed in one of the sessions I chaired, that included two brilliant speakers, Andrew Brewerton, Principal of Plymouth College of Art and Chair of Plymouth School of Creative Arts, and Jackie Marsh, Reader in Education at Sheffield University. They both approached the question of the role of making – ‘applied creativity’ – from what was, to me, a shared perspective centering on David Perkins’ concept of ‘lifeworthy’ learning, which is learning that equips the learner with skills, aptitudes and knowledge relevant to the contemporary context. Lifeworthy learning is one of a three-part rubric Perkins puts forward for learning for the 21st century and beyond (the other two are ‘lifelong’ and ‘life-wide’ – the latter meaning learning outside of formal education).

Making is key to all three areas of fulfilled learning. The shared perspective during this session centred on the skills that young people need to flourish in a context of change. My introductory paper had set out six key contexts for change within which ‘life-worthy’ learning can be situated  – environmental; technological; economic; geo-political; educational and socio-demographic –and gave an overview of the V&A’s Residency programme, which puts the maker at the centre of the learning portfolio. For Brewerton, the essence of ‘the Red School’ in Plymouth is encapsulated by the central role of making (and within this, of cooking – a subject our exhibition Food: Bigger Than the Plate brings into focus). For Marsh, attention focused on the role of digital making in early years education and development. Marsh referenced the ground-breaking work on early years Fab Labs at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in San Francisco. Fab Labs are an emergent type of maker space, a version of which we are looking to develop for the new Museum of Childhood. We understand that making is important for children in brain development, but as we age, we tend to move more towards a formal classroom model. What all learners need to do is recognise the importance of linking creativity and making with complex concepts for greater understanding.

The VARI symposium was incredibly wide-ranging and intrinsically multi-disciplinary. This was not only a reflection of the project partners but also spoke to a holistic concept of making. What would your proposition be for the role and value of making in today’s complex and fast changing world, and how might museums best promote this?

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