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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Informal Learning: National Museums Scotland Museum Socials

by Jonny Lear
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR DE IT PL ES

/en/file/national-museums-scotlandjpgNational Museums Scotland.jpg

National Museums Scotland

Since October 2015, National Museums Scotland’s Learning & Programmes Community Engagement team have been hosting monthly Museum Socials for people living with dementia, their family, friends and carers.

There are an estimated 35 million people with dementia worldwide. By 2050 it is projected that this figure will have increased to over 100 million.  In Scotland alone, it is estimated over 90,000 people are living with dementia.

Being rooted firmly in the Learning & Programmes department, the socials provide an informal learning experience, exposing participants to a range of opportunities to engage both with the national collections and with wider social activities.

Christine McLean, Community Engagement Manager, set up the Socials programme as a collaboration with National Galleries Scotland, The National Library of Scotland and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.  Each venue offers a monthly dementia Social event.

At the National Museum of Scotland, our Museum Socials are delivered by volunteer Guide, Louise Donnelly and two members of our Enabler team, Rachel Drury and Fiona Johnston.

Based on the Meet Me At MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) model, these offer a free, informal learning and social opportunity for people living with dementia, their family, friends or support workers. Participants can telephone to book or just turn up at 10:30am for tea/coffee and cake before settling down to a short topic introduction often using objects from our handling collection. Each session normally also includes either an art or craft activity or music and singing, ending with an optional visit to the galleries.

You can check out our current programme here: 

/en/file/national-museums-scolandceramicsblogjpgNational Museums

©The Trustees of National Museums Scotland.

Our first session, in October 2015, drew inspiration from our collection of contemporary glass and ceramics, in particular a piece entitled ‘Polka Dot Cotton’ (cup and saucer).  Participants were given a brief introduction to the collection, using enlarged images and were then encouraged to create their own designs using ceramic mugs and coloured pens.

Over the last 11 months we have welcomed almost 200 people to our Socials, many of them regular, repeat participants. On average, we have 18-20 people at a session, usually in pairs – either husband and wife, mother and son or friends.  We have also welcomed small groups from residential care homes.

We are able to pick up on personal stories and interests and incorporate these in to future sessions; for example, one person enjoys colouring in activities, so we also ensure we have a stack of good, clear line drawings of some of the objects we will discuss, for Alex to work with during the session.


Other people prefer music and singing and our most popular session to date has been Robert Burns: Fiddle Music, when we celebrated the life, work and songs of Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns, with singing and fiddle music in a section of the museum rescued from an 18th century building in Edinburgh. Participants were each given a songsheet and gently encouraged to sing along with Rachel and Fiona, both of whom were wearing 18th century costume.

The session included a short tour led by volunteer guide, Louise Donnelly, giving the background to the life, loves and works of Burns. At this session, we had several guests from residential care homes, some of whom had been quiet and non-communicative until the singing started; we noticed a significant change in their behaviour as they started to follow the lyrics or sing along.

Encouraged by this, we ran a session on the Jacobites, this time bringing in a professional historian and re-enactor as Prince Charles Edward Stuart ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, to demonstrate the costume and weaponry of the period.

/en/file/national-museums-scotlanddressblogjpgNational Museums

©The Trustees of National Museums Scotland.
We have found that costumes and real or replica handling objects are particularly successful with our guests, as is a participatory and inclusive approach to informal learning. So, for a session on Mary, Queen of Scots, the learning team compiled a list of common 16th century ailments and supposed cures, using real and replica items such as snails, toads or lavender. Participants each had an ailment/cure clue on their table and were invited to share these with the group.

The sessions often generate more questions than we can answer, but we do our best to follow up each and every enquiry and are delighted that participants are enjoying the informal learning aspects of the Socials.

The main objectives of the Museum Socials were to provide a relaxed, informal social opportunity for people to come together and explore an aspect of the National Museum Scotland collections.  Of course, learning is implicit in all that we do, but this was never an intentional objective for our participants who tell us they are just so pleased to have somewhere to go, each Friday of each month, where they know there will be knowledgeable, friendly people delivering light-touch sessions.

Our third series of Museum Socials will get underway from September 2016, focusing on ten new Art & Design and Science & Technology galleries that opened at the National Museum of Scotland in July 2016. Together with our partners at the National Galleries Scotland, The National Library of Scotland and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, we are looking at ways to measure and evaluate the impact of our Socials programme, whilst retaining the very special trust that we have built with our guests.

/en/file/national-museums-scotland-logopngNational Museums Scotland logo.png

National Museums Scotland logo

Christine McLean, Community Engagement Manager, Public Programmes - Learning & Programmes, National Museums Scotland.

Christine McLean is Community Engagement Manager (Public Programmes) at National Museums Scotland. She has responsibility for developing and delivering strategies to widen access and diversify National Museums Scotland’s audiences across Scotland.

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