We Have Ways of Making You Learn

Article excerpt

Byline: CHRISTOPHER MIDDLETON

IT is midmorning, and the urchins of Mile End are reciting their threetimes table under the supervision of schoolmistress Miss Perkins.

"Six-threes-are-18, seven threes are-21," barks the formidable Miss P, tapping her cane in time. After this, she's going to be inspecting her young charges with a view to their cleanliness and posture.

No, it's not some back-to basics schooling experiment, it's just another morning in the life of Tara Walker, education officer at the Ragged School Museum, Copperfield Road, E3. Each day, the museum hosts groups of modern-day schoolchildren for a session in which they dress up as Dickensian ragamuffins and get a taste of Victorian classroom life.

Playing Miss Perkins is only a small part of Walker's job. As the museum's education officer, she's got to be thinking not just about today's activities, but devising programmes months ahead, both for children and adults, for school holidays and evenings. "We're very community-focused here," says 34-year-old Walker, who' has a degree in archaeology and several years' teaching experience. "In fact, the backbone of the whole museum is our local volunteers."

There are 40, mostly pensioners like Ted Davis, who worked as a Billingsgate Fish Market porter, and who can remember when girls at the match factory opposite the museum went on strike because of "phossy jaw" (cancer of the facial bones caused by excess exposure to phosphorus). "Coming here has given me a new lease of life," says Davis. "It's marvellous to be standing up in front of 30 kids telling them what life was like here when I was their age."

The tradition of volunteering runs deep in museum culture, and for many young people it's a way of getting started in the profession.

Gemma Paterson, 21, works unpaid at the London Canal Museum (guiding school parties) and at the Honorable Artillery Company Museum (handling archives), as well as holding down a fulltime library job and running the 1st and 17th Palmers Green Brownies.

"I've got a degree from Middlesex University (cultural and intellectual history), but in order to get a fulltime museum job, I need to have an MA in Museum Studies," says Paterson, who lives with her parents in Edmonton.

"And just to get on an MA course, I need to have at least six months' experience in museum work."

Increasingly, it seems, you need to have both a degree and a postgraduate qualification if you want to get into museum and gallery management. Or, failing that, some specialist knowledge and experience. This was the case for Alice Nicholls, audience development officer at the Royal College of Surgeons Museums, in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

"When I was a medical student, I worked part-time at the Science Museum as an explainer, giving talks and demonstrations to visitors," she says. "When I decided not to become a doctor, I became a fulltime explainer, and then got the chance to move across to the Science Museum's medical collection as an assistant curator. But I wouldn't have got the opportunity if I hadn't had a medical background."

She now spends her day surrounded by large jars of pickled lungs and spleens, while, on the other side of the city, Catherine Robertshaw's horizon is full of 16th century cannons and men in pirate costumes.

She's the manager of the Golden Hinde, the working replica of Sir Francis Drake's original flagship, moored at St Mary Overie Dock, Southwark.

Well versed in Elizabethan seafaring lore, she can rattle off child-thrilling details of at-sea amputations and onboard Tudor lavatory arrangements (officers used the back of the boat, ratings perched at the front). She can tell you why the gundeck floors are painted red ("so that people didn't notice the blood during a battle"), and why Drake's sailors never learned to swim ("They felt it was disrespectful to the goddess of the sea"). …