School Programs in a COVID world

How many can fit, how close can we get, what can they touch and how do we clean it?!

Early this year as we, myself and my colleagues across the cultural sector, grappled with restarting onsite schools programs I saw many of us asking the same questions. We were all trying to interpret the guidelines, work with our health and safety departments, understand how schools had changed (or not) and adapt our programs to be safe, logistically manageable but still true to our philosophies of quality experiences.

It felt like the goal posts were constantly shifting and there was no hard and fast rulebook that could be applied to all organisations. It was clear, however, that everyone wanted to get the balance right: open but safe and meaningful but achievable. Ultimately we wanted to meet the needs of our audience, protect the safety of staff and visitors, while also providing exceptional experiences. I suspected that what that looked like was different for different organisations. But I knew that I would find it valuable to our planning to understand how our sector colleagues were tackling the challenge, so with the support and assistance of the AMAGA ENVi committee, I developed a survey.

It was my hope that we all be reassured by the fact that everyone was changing their programs and asking their audience to adapt. I also hoped that we may find inspiration, new approaches and help with finding solutions and processes to support our planning. I certainly found the results helpful. They also inspired us, as a committee, to develop a professional learning session for our new reNEWed series: Hands off engagement on 10th March.

As expected, the approaches did differ. But there were commonalities – changes had to be made to restart school programs. The changes may be to scheduling, numbers or process. Planning was , for most, becoming shorter-term. Online learning experiences were also an ongoing part of the planning for nearly all organisations. You can read a full summary of the survey results and watch reNEWed: Hands off engagement on the ENVi website.

Connecting an exhibition beyond the museum’s walls

Summer 20/21 provided another opportunity to use the limitations posed by COVID as inspiration to try something new. While Victoria was opening back up, audiences were still cautious and reimposed restrictions were a real possibility. For us, this meant that our stalwart of programming – hands-on craft-based experiences indoors – had to be reimagined.

To create opportunities for safe participation and learning I needed to look beyond the museum’s walls and connect with our friends and partners – supporting each other to develop meaningful experiences for our community and visitors.

For our visiting exhibition Wildlife Photographer of the Year we partnered with the Geelong Botanic Gardens to run outside photography workshops and develop an Urban Wildlife Trail between the Museum and the Gardens.

Our other visiting exhibition How Cities Work provided a whole different challenge – as a hands-on exhibition targeted at children cleaning and safety became paramount to decision making. With visitor limits and closure periods for cleaning, it was essential to develop a program that encouraged engagement with the exhibition without overwhelming traffic inside the exhibition.

The solution was to drawn on the concepts of the exhibition – urban life and design – and take them out into the City. To explore how cities work within the example of our own city: Geelong. I conceptualised an idea that involved a map-based scavenger-hunt style activity that revealed hidden or overlooked features of the city. Then working with a range of City departments, organisations and business, refined the activity to seven key sites to discover.

I engaged the exhibition artist, James Gulliver Hancock, to build on the artistic theme in the exhibition and create an illustrated map of Geelong. This beautiful map guided the participants around the city to the seven sites. At each site they collected a further illustration, with information about the specific City feature, which could be added to their map, with some becoming pop-ups or lift-flaps, similar to the How Cities Work book. Five of the sites also had vinyl decals that revealed more details – such as what was under the pavement or inside the smart bin.

The activity, called How Geelong Works, gave us the opportunity to encourage participation in a COVID safe way that was also meaningful, locally relevant and hands-on fun!

The digital pandemic pivot

There has been much talk of ‘pivoting’ activities and programs since the pandemic began. While some are tiring of the catch phrase, I have welcomed the opportunity to devote time and resources to testing and extending the National Wool Museum’s digital capabilities.

Back in March as we all headed home, we were due to launch a new festival – We The Makers Design Festival – featuring two exhibitions and a festival of events. I had prepared around 25 events and was about to hit ‘print’ on our festival brochure when we realised it wasn’t going to pan out as we expected. Initially we postponed events, but soon we began strategising about how we could keep the festival spirit alive while we all sheltered in place.

My colleague Luke Keogh forged ahead with curating an interactive digital exhibition experience for the Designer Showcase component of the festival. I wanted to build on this experience to create opportunities for learning, participation and sharing for the broad audience that had originally been catered to in the program of events. And so We The Makers CREATE was launched.

Initially the project focussed on delivering free opportunities for people to learn and experience in their own time and at their own pace, with a series of courses, videos and downloadable activities. Plus a platform for the community to share their creations and promote their creative endeavours – the Creator Gallery. As the festival draws to a close we are also offering ticketed digital events for live experiences with the course artists.

There were many learnings from this project and lots of successes to celebrate. We were able to support a number of local and Victorian artists to contribute their skills to the creation of content, we provided a platform for more artists to share their work and promote their businesses, and we supported families and schools with learning activities to do at home. Like many organisations we faced the challenge of a flooded digital environment, short timeframes and untested concepts. But I feel we made the most of the opportunity to test our skills and reach new audiences.

Not forgetting hands-on in the digital pandemic

StoryCraft learning resource packs for local prep students to support remote learning during the pandemic.

While we, like many cultural institutions, were busy trying to ‘pivot’ our programs to digital experiences we noticed an opportunity to provide an alternative, tactile experience for an audience who may face difficulties accessing or using digital resources – early years students from disadvantaged communities.

In response to this we set to work to create physical remote learning packs for prep students from disadvantaged schools in the local area. These learning kits were designed to build literacy learning, fine-motor skill development and wellbeing, as well as share stories relevant to the Museum and local history. They featured a picture book by a local author plus craft materials and instructions to make pom poms, finger knitted animals, plus a woven cloud and rainbow.

Although the kits were designed for remote learning they were delivered after the resumption of face to face teaching. This gave teachers the opportunity to utilise them in a manner that suited them and their students: as individualised learning resources or home learning activities.

The response to the kits was extremely positive with feedback such as:

“Students LOVED making the pom poms.”

“The resources and lesson plans accompanying them were outstanding!”

The packs “supported development of fine motor skills, speaking and listening and the development of vocabulary.”

“On behalf of our students, school and families, thank you for the opportunity to access such thoughtful resources and activities that provided our students with a new experience and challenge.”

Our team was delighted to use resources and skills for hands-on learning program delivery, which we couldn’t provide in person, to create a program with a positive impact for over 250 grateful students and teachers.