• Becca, Learning Wayfinder

Learning with Artefacts

The Through the Glass Darkly project

(c) University of St Andrews Museum (MUSA). Used with permission.
I think there is a real case to be made for more tactile interpretation within gallery spaces and next to the original object - Hannah

We're celebrating Scottish Archaeology Month 2017 with this post about learning with artefacts! Hannah Sycamore was the Curatorial Trainee (Learning & Access) at Museum of the University of St Andrews until June 2017. She is Scottish Learning Group's Blogger Superstar and now works for the Scottish Book Trust as School Events Administrator, but remains a Research Assistant on the Through a Glass Darkly project. She joined the Scottish Learning Group after her colleague recommended it. Hannah told us about her experience as a trainee - and this cool collaborative research project that she got involved in!

sIn an ongoing project funded by the Leventis Foundation, the University of St Andrews looked at how adult and young learners engage best by giving them different learning tools. These tools were both traditional methods (museum display, a handling box with real and replica objects, handling sessions) and relatively new technology: 3D digital reconstructions available online. They wanted to find out which tools most captured the learners' interests and enjoyment - and stayed stored in their memories.

Here is Hannah in conversation Rebecca Boyde, Scottish Learning Group Wayfinder, discussing her experience on the Through a Glass Darkly project, what she learnt and where the project will be heading next.

Rebecca: So, why is it called ‘Through a Glass Darkly’?

Hannah: Through a Glass Darkly is a biblical phrase (1 Corinthians) that has been used in numerous books/movies. We have used it to highlight the blurred and varied view we can gain of material culture when seen in a museum cases only.

Rebecca: Who do you work with on this project?

Hannah: We have a project team of four people. Professor Rebecca Sweetman is the project manager and is an expert on all the material we are working with. She was the impetus behind the project with a fundamental research goal to understand different perceptions of material culture in a range of contexts as well as having the aim to digitise all the archaeological material in the Bridges Collection. Dr Ioannis Georganas creates the models and researches the context for the material. Alison Hadfield, Learning & Access Curator, was responsible for the curatorial input into the project, including developing the interactive exhibition, planning the audience research and investigating how the findings can be applied in the museum and education sectors.

Rebecca: What was your role in the research?

Hannah: I joined the project mid-way, after the display of the different interpretation had been installed in the museum  and the first few focus groups had been run. My role was to run or assist in the remaining focus groups, then to work collaboratively with the rest of the project team to analyse the results and prepare these for publication in an article. Since then my contribution to the project has been extensively looking at ways to disseminate the results; presenting our results to local museum forums, submitting conference abstracts, managing the blog and webpage, and updating social media pages. I will also be presenting at the results from the projects at two conferences in the autumn.

Rebecca: Which result surprised you the most?

Hannah: The result that surprised me most came from observing how our participants used the feely box, especially the adults. What we noticed was that by placing the feely box, with replicas inside, next to the display case with the original objects, visitors would move between the two to further their understanding. They would handle the replica, feeling it’s weight and the grooves or patterns, then move back to the display case to look again at the object and its interpretation. Initially this surprised me. We are so used to handling boxes or replicas being held together in a “Discovery Centre”, that it didn’t occur to me that visitors would use the feely box in conjunction with other interpretation methods. I think there is a real case to be made for more tactile interpretation within gallery spaces and next to the original object.

young learners engage with museum display (c) University of St Andrews Museum (MUSA). Used with permission.

Rebecca: What did you have to learn in order to do this research?

Hannah: I learnt a great deal throughout the project, and a number of new skills. I learnt about the process of creating digital models of objects. Both in the form of 3D scans and the new world of Photogrammetry (using photographs to create models) using the software Autodesk Remake. I have also gained experience in editing content for the web.

Rebecca: So where next for the project?

Hannah: At the moment, we are awaiting news of our research article which details the methods and results and is under review for publication.

The next stage for the project is dissemination of the results. We have already shared our results with local forums, including the Tayside Museum Forum and the Fife Museum Forum. We want to know more about similar projects, share our findings and discuss the implications of our results for informal learning in the heritage sector. It would be fruitful to discuss the project in relation to other museums and their experience with digital technology and media.

We will be sharing our ideas and results at future conferences, included the Oxford Digital Learning in Museums Conference; the Museum Association Annual Conference in Manchester; Historic Royal Palaces Relevance Conference in London; and international conferences including The European Association of Archaeologist Conference in Maastricht and the University Museum and Collection (UMAC) Annual Conference in Helsinki.

The results were fascinating and showed that in an ever growing technically advanced society, there is still a place for the traditional museum interpretation methods and approaches. Our visitors unanimously learnt, enjoyed and engaged the most with original objects during a handling session. Clearly, nothing can beat interacting with the real object. This is perhaps a vital reminder for smaller museums or learning organisations who have limited time and resources. We believe that creating digital models should target specific collections, primarily those unsuitable for public handling sessions such as Natural History Collections.

We are working on putting together a training packages for schools and museums alike to enable others to learn from our experience and use the digitisation methods as a teaching tool in their own museums or classrooms.

The final stage of project research is to contact participants and to interview a selection to see what they retained from the focus groups sessions. The question we now want to explore is which interpretation method had a lasting impact? Which remained in their memory?

So, plenty to keep us busy in the coming months!


We are the people who are 'on the ground' in learning and engagement in Scotland. We come from a whole bunch of settings, from zoology to mental health, and provide learning programmes and resources for learning in all its guises.

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