Lorna Robinson reflects on the Iris project.
Lorna Robinson and David Gimson (Museum Lead at Cheney) in the Ashmolean Museum.
On 12th March, on a coach taking sixth formers to a UCAS convention, I received an email informing me that our Rumble Museum had received full Arts Council accreditation, making it the first accredited museum in a UK school. A week later, the government announced all schools were to close indefinitely to most pupils. A whole new era was dawning, and one which is filled with deep uncertainty.
This article is about the journey to get to this point, the reasons for doing it, and the benefits we have seen so far.
The Iris Project was founded early in 2006 as an initiative to promote access to Classics in state schools, to inspire and nurture interest in these subjects, and to give more children the chance to study and benefit from Classical languages, literature, history, philosophy and culture. I was lucky enough to have studied these subjects at school, and I knew I wanted to be part of making them accessible to others.
It started with Iris magazine, a new classics magazine which I hoped would present classical topics in accessible, light-hearted, modern and unusual ways, and running after-school lessons for Latin and Greek in state schools, but in its earliest stages, I had not planned to launch a project on the school curriculum.
Not long after I had begun these projects, in May 2006, I was contacted by the chair of Governors at a primary school in Hackney, where most of the children were on free school meals and where many different languages were spoken at home. He asked if Latin could be run at this school. I wrote a course that summer, and in September 2006 I was ready to start teaching Latin on the literacy time table to two year five classes at the school, as well as a class at a school at the east side of Oxford with a very similar demographic.
The lesson plans were designed to support and enhance the national curriculum literacy strategies, and to provide an enjoyable, unique and accessible introduction to Latin for large mixed-ability classes. I based them around a series of activities, which included Latin and storytelling using Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The storytelling aspect was there to give some context to the Latin, promote a broader array of literacy skills and of course to give a taste of the magic that Classics has to offer. Activities involved a whole range of things, from using jigsaw pieces to teach inflection and making spider webs and flowers to display how Latin and English words were connected, to making road signs to teach imperatives, and writing votive tablets and ancient menus to broaden vocabulary and introduce aspects of culture. The focus was on using a wide range of creative approaches – games, art, crafts and storytelling – to explore and play with language and myth. This course formed the basis of the storybook course Telling Tales in Latin, which we now use with the schools.
From these first beginnings, the Literacy through Latin project expanded to many more schools in many other cities, including Edinburgh, Reading, Manchester, Swansea, St Andrew’s and Glasgow. Glasgow University took the innovative step of embedding the Literacy through Latin scheme into their undergraduate classics degree, so that students could choose to take part in the project as a module.
Over the many years of running Iris magazine, the Literacy through Latin projects, and also other ventures, from Greek theatre to ancient Olympics, I’d been kindly donated a very interesting range of Greek and Roman artefacts, by a mixture of museums, universities, and individuals. For some years, I would use these as part of workshops, but otherwise they would live in my office at home.
When in 2012 we set up a dedicated Classics Centre at Cheney School in East Oxford, all that started to change. For the first time, Iris had a base, with walls to decorate, and places to store artefacts and use them more readily. Over the next few years of developing the Classics Centre at the school, it occurred to me that I could display the objects around the school and create a museum area. I explored the idea of creating a museum in a school and found out about the Accreditation Scheme. Because I knew so little about running a museum at that point, the process of accreditation seemed the perfect opportunity to learn, with support from a dedicated mentor, how to look after objects, how to catalogue and store them, how to display them, and what a museum could be when it is embedded in a busy school.
We were very fortunate to find a sponsor for the museum, who wanted the museum to be named after a young man called Jamie Rumble, and so the Rumble Museum was born. We were given Working towards Accreditation status in 2015, and in the five years that followed, we catalogued our items, created large display areas all over the school site, ran monthly events and daily workshops, and started two Student Museum Councils. These councils meet weekly, plan and carry out projects, and learn to be curators.
During this time, we have seen how working with objects inspires the widest range of children and adults. We have run workshops on Greek vases for groups of children whose behaviour has meant that they aren’t able to attend mainstream lessons, and discovered how these students, when presented with objects, find the confidence to talk about them and explore them that they do not always find in more traditional, and text-based, lessons.
We regularly invite local primary schools to take part in workshops. Most recently, we ran Underworld themed workshops for Year Sixes, where they explored our original Greek tetradrachm and our replica lyre with great delight. Museums offer a very special learning experience and one that is quite different from a school. The Rumble Museum brings this experience right into the heart of a busy state school. We are learning every day about what it means to be a museum in a school. There are challenges but it has certainly transformed the face of the school. Students and visitors comment on the striking displays and objects, and how it changes how they feel about being on site. We are working on projects to embed these objects into curriculum teaching, which is a greater challenge, but one which could revolutionise the way that we use the objects at the museum and the school.
Digital Collection Day at work
Cheney School is a large comprehensive secondary school, in a very diverse area, where over 30% of the students have English as an additional language, and over 30% of students are on free school meals. Over 1500 students come on site each day, so we have a ready-made daily audience, which makes us very different from an ordinary museum! We are outward looking, too, inviting people of all ages to workshops, talks and events. All our events are offered free of charge to the school and its wider community in order to ensure the widest possible participation.
Since the news of full Accreditation, and the lockdown, we have created virtual projects, including our Object a Day and Home Museums project, both of which can be found on our website at www.rumblemuseum.org.uk
From a magazine to a museum, The Iris Project has been on an interesting journey since 2006, and one I would never have predicted. It has been, and still is, a steep learning curve. I had no expertise in the area and less than two years of school teaching experience when I started, so a lot of the time it has been a case of jumping in and hoping it will work out. It was almost certainly more luck than judgment at the start, but the response of schools and all sorts of people I’ve met along the way has further shown that there is much desire to learn about classics, whether through languages, myths, or objects. Classics has a wonderful, enriching effect on education at all levels.
The Iris Project in full swing at one of their annual festivals.
One final and important thing to say is that everything we have done in schools and communities over the past fourteen years has been made possible because of the enormous generosity of people who have offered to help, by volunteering their time and expertise in all areas, and the people who have supported at both the best and worst of times.
Dr Lorna Robinson is Director of The Iris Project and Rumble Museum. If you would like to be involved or to donate items or funds to the projects, please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.