Go back to article: ‘The whole exhibition becomes the stage…’ – a journey through time by children for children as a new approach to peer learning

The implementation of the pilot project

Preparatory phase

As the official start of the project was 15 February 2015 we used the time in the run-up to it to deal with necessary organisational issues. Drawing up the participation forms with all the necessary personal details required, such as addresses, emergency contacts, medical conditions, photography permits and so on, would save time in the long run. Furthermore, we conducted preliminary meetings with our alliance partners to inform them of the successful application and coordinate our future plans.

It was of fundamental importance at this stage to map out a strategy to address the needs of the target group. Our offer was designed to reach educationally disadvantaged pre-teenagers, aged between 8 and 12. In line with the funding guidelines, which focused on extra-curricular projects, we were not allowed to invite school classes or to carry out the project during school hours. Yet in practice it is nearly impossible to reach children of this age during their spare time. After careful consideration we decided that the most appropriate way of reaching out to the children was to visit the after-school clubs attached to the primary schools. One of the advantages of this approach is that the club staff can choose children who would most benefit from the project.

Although our alliance partners put us in touch with the people in charge of the after-school clubs, the co-ordination process was time-consuming. While we knew many teachers and even directors of the primary schools, we did not know the staff responsible for the after-school clubs. Most of these educators were unaware that the Museum even existed, let alone knew our staff. A lot of long and intensive discussions were necessary until the schedule for the outreach programme was complete. In mid-February the project finally started. The implementation was carried out in several phases, described below.


Step 1: Outreach phase – gaining participants

The initial contact with potential candidates always took place in the premises of the after-school clubs.[8] The familiar surroundings and the company of classmates encouraged an easy and comfortable atmosphere and prevented any sense of stigmatisation because of participation.

The educators visited seven local primary schools and brought the Museum right into the classroom. Our ‘Museum suitcase’ with a collection of funny, unusual, or intriguing items inspired the children to ask a lot of questions. The Museum educator took advantage of their curiosity and not only explained the purpose of each item, but told some interesting, funny or even obscure stories about former times as well. They encouraged the children to imagine life without electricity and to imagine how the invention of the electric light bulb or an electric hotplate made life easier and safer for people. Some of the historical devices were still in working order and the children enjoyed toasting bread, receiving a massage, or feeling a cup gradually warming because of an immersion heater inside it.

Figure 4

Visiting the open-day care facility to attract interest for the project by trying out the items in the Museum’s suitcase.

(left) The massage device was particularly popular

(right) Sailan belonged to the first team. His visit in open-day care was a surprise. “I can explain way better than you, what the project is all about.” He gave a very good overview of the project for his peers and demonstrated the old toaster – with safety instructions!

Children who showed interest in participating were given a letter for their parents with a short description of the project. Some children, mostly girls, clearly wanted to take part, but weren’t allowed. Our project partners, the educators and our staff tried their best to convince the parents, but in most cases without success.[9]

Parents who had given permission for their children to join the project were sent a second letter inviting them to a parents’ evening at the Museum. The letter was jointly signed by the after-school club staff members and the Museum director and discussed practicalities such as supervisory duties, transport and other necessary legal and organisational issues. Although we offered a selection of dates, some parents did not come to the meetings, some sent their eight-years-olds in their place to sign the forms, and some were accompanied by a child to translate. But it was clear that there were families who were very happy about the opportunity for their children to have a valuable activity on a Friday afternoon.

As a result of the outreach phase, fourteen children registered to attend the project – twice as many as the funding guidelines required.

Colleagues from other museums, who had already carried out projects in the preceding years, warned us to expect that a lot of children would drop out in the course of time. We wanted to prevent this with all means available. From the beginning our concept included a lot of playful elements, a high degree of variety and emphasised the importance of teambuilding. Therefore, from the moment the group visited the Museum for the first time, the primary objective was to build a strong team spirit and this issue marked and characterised the second step.[10]


Step 2: First meetings – becoming part of a team

Building a strong team is not only important for the children themselves but is also an essential requirement for a successful project. In this case the children, who came from six different schools, had to adjust to a new and unknown peer group; they had to learn to support each other, to plan and work together with a common objective, over a long time period. The project intentionally included elements of shared experiences in the meetings to foster cohesion of the peer group. If the children had the dedication and perseverance to participate throughout the project, that participation would also strengthen their social competences and skills.

The first team meeting took place early in April[11] and started with a round of interviews, with soft drinks, juices and cake provided. After all of the participants had introduced themselves and received a lanyard with a name tag, we talked about our plans for the following meetings. Then the meetings started in earnest.

First of all, the group visited some back office rooms, such as the staff kitchen, where they could always find drinks. They were introduced to other Museum employees as new team members whose role was to act as ambassadors for the Museum. Employees were briefed to take the children seriously and make them feel important.

It was a priority for us that the children identify with the Museum and feel a sense of belonging to it. The children generally had low self-esteem, therefore it was important to strengthen their sense of confidence and self-reliance. We tried to accomplish this by means of teambuilding and integration into the Museum team. The children had permission to enter rooms visitors are not allowed to access, they were promised free entrance to the Museum all the time – even after the end of the project – and they were given the same customised polo shirts with the Museum logo that all Museum employees wear.

Although not part of our original plan, some aspects of the schedule of the first day became ritualised very soon and became essential elements of each Friday afternoon: the children arrived and fetched their polo shirts and lanyards. The initial purpose of these lanyards had been to make it easier for everybody to remember names during the first meeting, but for the children the lanyards had an importance far beyond that. The lanyards and name tags became an identification badge they put around their necks each and every time, even when the bulky name tag interfered with the costumes during rehearsal. Properly dressed and equipped they romped around for about ten to fifteen minutes releasing the energy built-up during a long school day. Then without being prompted they gathered in our usual meeting room to have a snack and grab a quick drink.[12]

Only after the children had completed these rituals – which took approximately half an hour – could the museum educators start the workshop.


Step 3: Qualification of the team members – becoming museum professionals

To train the children for their task as ‘museum professionals’ and ‘museum ambassadors’ two workshops were developed. The first workshop was dedicated to getting to know the public exhibition, the second one to getting to know the non-public area and the different departments.

In total we scheduled five meetings (or fifteen hours) to accomplish the objectives of this step. However, to create a varied programme and to ensure that the entire group stayed highly motivated, the tours through the Museum alternated or were combined with parts of the second workshop. Apart from ensuring variation, this mixture of activity and shorter tours avoided the need for a single guided tour of longer than an hour and a half, which would have been tedious and inappropriate for children this age.

Two museum educators accompanied the children on their journeys of discovery through the exhibition and provided detailed information as well as answering any questions when deeper exploration of a hidden drawer or a cupboard brought another mysterious device to light. Each Friday the children experienced a tour with a different topic, familiarising themselves with various aspects of the exhibition.

On the first tour the group travelled back in time more than 150 years to when electricity did not play a part in daily life. Life without electricity is hardly conceivable to many people today, especially not for children. Therefore, the first topic was to imagine what it would have been like when there were no electric lights, no telephones, no washing machines, television or heating. How did people in the past manage their lives? Would we have been able to meet the challenges of a life without modern energy sources and overcome the resulting problems? The children were able to see how much time and effort was needed to complete simple everyday tasks without electricity. Because of this, modern appliances took on a new significance for them.

Old electrical devices compared to modern appliances was the main topic of the second journey with special attention on the development of electrification during the twentieth century.

With the third and last tour the group made a closer examination of early electrical appliances. Learning about the functional principles and potential hazards of the various devices was essential because the children would eventually operate some appliances as part of their play.

After exploring the exhibition in detail and getting acquainted with the topic as well as the history of electrification, the second workshop dealt with different subjects: ‘What is the role of a museum and does a museum need to fulfil other tasks besides creating exhibitions? What are the purposes of the various departments?’
One particularly popular feature was the opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes of the Museum and take a look at the storage rooms, workshops and the storage facilities for our object collections. The object stores turned out to be a highlight for the children. The museum educators taught the group how to inventory a new object, how to clean, measure, photograph and attach an object label. The children would have loved to go to the store on every visit to investigate the secrets behind the mobile shelving system. They often argued that as members of the Museum team they should be kept informed of all new acquisitions.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a young girl holding an early metal kettle

Exploring the depot and rolling shelving – equipped, of course, with appropriate gloves like the professionals

Also of interest to them were the storage for the handicraft materials and the stocks for our electricity workshops. The children were fascinated by the amount of construction sets the educational service uses for learning programmes. If they had had their way they would have constructed each and every model in the store. We did try out the experimental kits once following one of the tours. This helped us teach the children how a simple electrical circuit works – good to know when belonging to a team in a museum which is all about electricity.


Step 4: The play Journey through Time – writing the script and choosing the props

It was an important requirement of the funding guidelines that the children share the skills and knowledge they acquired during the project with their peers. The most obvious method would have been to use the format ‘children as tour guides for children’ with the children moving from one exhibit to the next describing the key facts and providing notable background information to the audience. By giving the children the task to jointly develop a stage play made up of several short acts we wanted to try a different approach. This concept was well suited to the specific ‘room set’ design of our exhibition and it is particularly suitable for children. Key messages can be communicated in a way that is easy for the actors to learn and for the peer group to understand. And not least a play has a lot of ‘playful’ elements – children love to dress up and act.

It is well researched that acting has a positive impact on children’s speech comprehension and reading skills and several studies emphasise the importance of acting for stimulating fantasy and creativity.[13]

To begin the process the children considered which parts of the exhibition were particularly important and would be of interest for their peer group. Then the roles were specified, that they felt were necessary to present the contrasting conditions of everyday life in different times, and finally the lines that the actors would speak were written down. The children themselves decided what role they wanted to take. The roles were designed so that they could be adapted to the individual abilities and personal resilience of each child to create a feeling of success and to build self-confidence.

Working together on the script was an open process and continued for the entire duration of the rehearsals. In retrospect this was a mistake! While it was intriguing to observe how the choice of words and phrases of some children visibly improved, and see how other children, who initially only wanted to have one short line, suddenly decided also to take on a bigger part, this open-ended approach to writing caused problems too. Each rehearsal seemed to have a new script and due to the constant changing of sentences the next child in line didn’t have a clear idea when to start their own lines.

We recognised during the rehearsals that one girl grew into her role in such a way that she even adapted typical speech patterns and phrases of the time. As a rich lady of the early twentieth century she uttered: “My husband said, you are so valuable to me that it is my duty to indulge you with the luxury of a modern electrical connection.” The translation only gives a flavour of the effect. The original German sentence is such an old fashioned and odd way to express oneself that even we wouldn’t have come up with it. Even now we don’t know where she heard or read it.[14]

After finishing the basic concept of the scripts, props and scenery needed to be considered. Elaborate costumes were not necessary; simple and easy to change garments and accessories such as hats, aprons, handbags, a fan and a fancy pair of long gloves or a smock would be sufficient. A coal shovel for the fireman at the steam engine, a cigar for the rich factory owner or a serving tray for the maid signified the occupation or the social status of a character. Some props were already on site, because the children would use the exhibition room sets and switch on the electrical appliances already on display to grind coffee, toast some bread or use the phonograph to play an old shellac record. It was intended that the haptic experience of operating the object, along with sound and smell, would enhance the impact and meaning of the exhibit for the active players and the audience. The short theatre piece would present the object within a meaningful social or historical context, bringing the past imaginatively to life. It was hoped that through the play the audience would perceive the significance of the object far more intensely and that the integration of the object into a story would anchor the learning even more deeply in the audience’s memory.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a young girl demonstrating the use of a clothes washing board

Acting as a washing woman in former times


Step 5: Rehearsals and acting training – becoming an actor

The first walks through the exhibition with the finished script in step four were just test runs to see whether the script would work with the chosen parts of the exhibition. The rehearsals started the moment all props were available and the children could dress up. Now the exhibition space became a stage. The biggest challenge for the museum educators was to keep the children to a realistic time and scale. While acting the children were continuously developing new ideas and coming up with further additions that they now remembered from the first tours and considered important.

During the first rehearsals the actors were allowed to use their scripts, but soon the museum educators banished the scripts, because the children tended to read their lines, instead of using free speech, even when they knew their roles by heart. Some even memorised the roles of their fellow actors.

During rehearsals it became more evident that some children had a hard time standing still and focusing. That was even more noticeable when they had to wait during the scenes of the other actors. One boy in particular – who had a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder[15] – often distracted his fellow team members and caused upheaval among the group. The issue of focusing was not the only problem. Other issues for the children were poor pronunciation, difficulty in projecting their voices and the inability to use expressive body language.

It was clear that further training in dramatic skills would be invaluable to the children. Early on in the project planning we had engaged a drama teacher, who was trained and experienced in working with children and was booked to perform two general acting workshops independently of the actual play and the roles. The workshops didn’t take place in the exhibition, but in a large room with enough space for motion exercises and so remote that performing even noisy speech exercises could not bother anyone. Under the teacher’s guidance the children learned to speak loudly and clearly. They also, almost involuntarily, developed a new perception of body feeling and self-awareness. Various exercises designed to improve facial expression and body language were met with great enthusiasm. In the course of the training the children gained more and more self-confidence. The improved language skills and the newly learned art of mimicry were not only hugely enjoyable for the children, but had a positive effect on the acting. It was not initially planned for the drama teacher to accompany the children in the rehearsals but it appeared to be reasonable to proceed this way and we decided to extend her engagement. The drama teacher supervised a few rehearsals and the young actors became better and better. In addition, she taught the children some insider tips that professional actors use to reduce stage fright.


Step 6: Highlight and closing event – presenting Journey through Time


Figure 7

'Journey through Time'

After twelve weeks of learning, training and rehearsals the day came to present the stage play to a live audience. Friends and families of the actors attended the premiere, along with other families who were visiting the Museum on that Sunday afternoon. Many families had read about the project and understood that it was a form of guided tour particularly suitable for children. The more than one hundred spectators somewhat overwhelmed the actors at the beginning. One little boy even asked: “Sabine, did we know that so many people would come? You didn’t tell us!” But soon they forgot the audience and started their performance of Journey through Time. The children slipped into their roles as craftsmen, hairdressers, housewives, laundresses, maids or ladies, operating the objects and telling their stories.

In the performance a travel guide, equipped with a large sign, so that nobody gets lost, welcomes the audience as fellow travellers and leads them from one attraction to the next announcing the stopping points and providing general information such as: “Our first stop will be at the factories over there. More than 125 years ago, factories already generated electrical energy for their machines. Here you can see the proud factory owner and his business friend.” Snapping their fingers the tour guide animates a frozen tableau and the actors start their play discussing the advantages of the newest technical achievement: a generator.

The final rehearsal the day before had been an absolute catastrophe, because suddenly no actor could remember their lines and keywords or manage the necessary rapid change of costumes (each actor had to play multiple roles). Nevertheless, the premiere went smoothly. The children even succeeded in solving a major problem. One girl didn’t appear for the first performance.[16] The group decided to split her parts among themselves and if necessary other actors prompted the replacements. The idea worked so well that the audience didn’t even notice that a problem had occurred.

For the very last time, there was another change of the script, though only a small one. One boy held a spray bottle in his hand when the performance started. When asked what he wanted to do with it, he just smiled mysteriously. The mystery was revealed as the tour group reached the tram. The moment the tram driver demonstrated his windshield wiper, suddenly water splashed onto the outside of the window. The boy had written himself a last-minute role into the play, calling himself ‘rainmaker’.

One hour later the final scene of the play took all the travellers and actors into our staging of a pub, where the whole ensemble started dancing to a rock n’roll song of the 1950s coming from the old jukebox. The performance was a great success, with the audience enthusiastically joining in with the singing and applauding the performance.

Figure 8

(left) The factory owner proudly describes the numerous advantages of his new electric generator

(right) The rich lady brags that her husband had ordered electricity for their home and shows off her new devices in front of her friend

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180911/003