Taking Sheffield museum and city history directly out to school pupils
For many of the museums and heritage sites forced into months of closure during the Covid crisis, the income lost from general visitors was just the tip of the iceberg.
The loss of major events, corporate partnerships and, crucially, school and community group visits was almost as big a blow for organisations operating on what are often slim financial margins.
That was certainly the case for Sheffield’s National Emergency Services Museum (NESM), which saw a packed schedule of school visits disappear almost overnight in March 2020.
Matt Wakefield, the museum’s CEO, said: “I remember in the week before the first lockdown was announced last year, when things were changing so fast, we were taking phone call after phone call from schools cancelling their planned visits.
"Our diary emptied in the space of 48 hours.
"We didn’t know then, of course, it would be 18 months before we would welcome them back.’
The absence of schools alone has cost NESM around £35,000, adding to the financial pressures that this independent, self-funded museum and charity faced during the pandemic.
It’s no wonder that the team is looking forward to welcoming learners back as the new school year begins this week.
Despite the absence of schools, the National Emergency Services Museum team has not wasted the last 18 months.
Schools are coming back to an even better learning and discovery programme, launched by the museum today to coincide with the start of the new school year.
Matt said: “We’ve worked to improve our educational offer and we think we’ve got something that will really excite and engage learners whatever their age.”
Hosting school visits at its historic home - a former police, fire and ambulance station in Sheffield city centre - remains at the heart of NESM’s learning and discovery offer.
Its range of in-house workshops, covering curriculum-linked topics like the Great Fire of London, World War II and the Blitz, Crime and Punishment, and Medicine through Time, has been completely revamped for the new term.
Topics are brought to life through interaction with the museum’s unique spaces, such as its original Victorian cells, historic objects from its collection, role plays and, new for 2021, costumed characters to tell the stories of the past.
NESM remains aware, however, that things are not quite yet ‘back to normal’ for schools.
Matt said: “We know the new school year will bring with it challenges that may yet make ‘traditional’ school trips difficult.
"But we’ve addressed that in our reimagined programme by improving what we can offer to learners in their own classrooms.”
The flagship of this new outreach offer is something the museum is calling Topic Takeover days.
This full-day activity brings the NESM experience directly to schools, using role play, costumed characters, interactive activities and team games to immerse learners in the history of the Blitz, the Great Fire of London and People Who Help Us.
For a more bitesize experience the NESM team can deliver tailored one-hour workshops and talks to classes.
Workshops can be combined with one of the museum’s updated loan boxes, which include a mixture of genuine and replica objects from the museum’s collection plus a host of general and topic-specific activities to fire the imagination of learners and bring history to life through games, activities and challenges.
For teachers who prefer a self-guided option, loan boxes are available to hire weekly and are supplied with guidance to allow classes to work through the activities without a member of the NESM team.
And last but not least the always popular vehicle outreach day - which sees the team visit schools with one of the museum’s amazing emergency vehicles and deliver workshops exploring the history and use of the vehicle - remains an important part of the relaunched learning programme.
Matt said: “We’re really excited about our new learning and discovery programme and we’re looking forward to welcoming schools back after such a long break.
"We think there is something for all ages to explore, discover, learn and enjoy but with a strong curriculum-focus that will help drive their overall classroom learning.
“Plus we’ve aimed to make our offer as wide-ranging as possible so whatever the needs and resources of individual schools, wherever they are, and whatever circumstances the new term brings, they can engage with the amazing history we have to share at NESM.”
The museum’s learning programme caters to all ages from early years and key stage 1 to GCSE.
For further information on the museum’s learning scheme go to visitnesm.org.uk/learning. What would really make a fresh start as students go back to school? See Telegraph Columnist Judith Watkins, page 50.