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“My Primary School is at the Museum…During the Pandemic”

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Children sitting around tables in front of graphic wall murals, with a teacher standing in the background
My Primary School is at the Museum, Tate Liverpool by Jake Ryan, 2016

One challenge facing communities around the globe is providing safe spaces where children can continue their education as normally as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK, Labour party leader Keir Starmer recently called for the government to use museums and other cultural spaces as classrooms so that children can return to education. This challenge has been echoed by Wendy James and her colleagues at the My Primary School is at the Museum (MPSM) project,  originally sponsored by the Cultural Institute at King’s College London and now, with a significantly developing network, due to be based at Oxford Brookes. MPSM has already documented the benefits of housing school classes in museums. Now they have published a proposal to rapidly relocate classes to cultural settings during the pandemic, and are surveying cultural entities (including museums) to identify organizations ready to serve as accessory classrooms. In today’s guest post, Wendy provides an overview of the MPSM’s history and current focus, and suggests that US museums might also want to seek educational partners, and government funding, to serve as classrooms over the next year. –Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums

It’s nearly 3 years now since AAM colleagues were working with us here in the UK in the development and communication of the “My Primary School is at the Museum,” when we co-presented at the (UK) Museums Association AGM in November 2017. The project was created to test the hypothesis that there may be beneficial learning, social, and cultural outcomes for primary school children and their families when a significant portion of their learning takes place in a museum setting, as well as demonstrating the benefits for museums. Since its start with pilot projects at three museums in the UK, MPSM has developed in a quiet but steady way with further partnerships emerging across the country. Now we include not just primary schools; but nurseries too and even parents & toddlers and baby groups. (A baby clinic attached to such a group can be found in the Manchester Art Gallery.) And it is not just museums and galleries either; we have botanical gardens too so far, and many more enquiries from a much wider range of settings as you will read below.

Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our worlds are experiencing a major parallel shift; we didn’t see it coming and we will all have been affected quite differently. We have to venture out of our various positions of retreat and protection, attempting to come out with our lives set against a backdrop with new limitations being dictated by the novel coronavirus.

One item that must be high on our list of societal priorities during the pandemic is to get our children safely back into full-time education. This is a fundamental requirement for their opportunities and preparedness in life; their social functioning, happiness, physical and mental wellbeing, and their ability to live fruitfully alongside their friends. We must get children back on track by inspiring their learning and development as individuals and in the community.

Home schooling has been rewarding for some children, parents, and carers, but for a very large number of families it is not practicable. There is deep concern that the pressure for parents to support education at home will widen societal chasms, aspirational and attainment gaps. Children must get back to school not only for their own sakes, but so adults can get back to work as well. How can we manage it all? In schools themselves, both space and teaching resources  may not be sufficient to provide the undisturbed full-time school that is so badly needed.

Here at MPSM we believe we can turn to our tested and well documented project to supplement these resources by providing space, learning staff, resilience and a safety net in some neighbourhoods. Based on our work, we can provide all these things in one packaged solution. We believe that the cultural, heritage and natural settings sectors, and indeed your own local museum, can be part of getting children back to school.

We’re addressing museums as our title suggests of course, but we encompass other cultural settings too: galleries, libraries, theatres, concert halls and opera houses, and a wealth of natural settings including botanical, zoological and aquatic gardens amongst others. In other words, places that hold collections and learning departments; places which have spaces and staff that could creatively and inspiringly support our schools. To provide educational support during the pandemic, these institutions might need to expand their pre-lockdown use and skills. But in essence, stepping up to house students and classrooms would retain and even amplify institutions’ mission to provide inspirational learning and engagement programmes for children, families, and communities as a whole.

Now in 2020, the MPSM project has developed significantly, with not only repeats  of our original pilot projects, but also several new programs. Networks of school-host partnership projects have sprung up with associated academic and teacher training institutions involved too, in England, Wales, Republic of Ireland and even Norway! Our first project in Germany is due to start soon.

It remains our intention to develop the project further, using the associated research network to more comprehensively validate the approach. We already have evidence that holding classes in museums creates social, cultural and science capital not only for the children, but also for their schools, families and communities. The project has proved a significant key to community audience development.

The MPSM blueprint could rapidly be adapted to so many settings. If your museum has a school nearby (walking or short bus route) could you offer space and personnel resource, and fill some, if not all of their needs?

This work has to be a team effort; all our projects to date have been carefully configured in terms of space.  The teaching plans became collaborative activities amongst teachers, teaching assistants, museum learning officers and assistants, and even some parents and volunteers.

We are aware that potential partnerships may need help to adopt the approach; clearly this should not get in the way of efforts to get our wider cultural and natural sectors back up and running. But it is possible that visitor numbers are going to be lower for quite some time. This project can establish a steady heart-beat and seed a vital reason for families, carers and the local community neighbourhoods to come back to their local cultural, heritage, and natural facilities. Host settings could effectively become key workers in our nations’ responsibility to educate.

The UK government’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) asked us to undertake a survey and see what appetite might be in the cultural, natural, heritage sectors to assist education in these ways. We’ve just run it and had a wonderful response from all scales of establishment from the nationals, to regional and local facilities.

Here’s our small island results snapshot map of organizations interested in participating!

Maybe you could think of launching a similar project in the USA? That would be wonderful—and we believe our templates and resources could support this work.

Good Luck and Stay Healthy, Inspired and Creative one and all!

–Wendy James, Partner, Garbers & James, Architects
London, August 2020

Here are links to more information about the My Primary School is at the Museum

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  1. This is really interesting that such initiates are being proposed in the UK. There has been some isolated instances of museums in the US doing something similar. I know specifically of Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, which started their own charter academy back in 2016. More information about that can be found here:

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