I’ve just come back from a holiday in Biarritz, which turned out to be a rather wet and windy object lesson in different styles of learning.
Our original plan was to kick back on the beautiful beaches, try a bit of surfing, and maybe stroll along the promenade in the balmy evenings to a dockside cafe for fresh fish and rough local vin.
It rained. And then it rained. And then it rained again. Then there was a bit of sun. Before more rain. For a week.
The first rainstorm drove us into the Musee de la Mer, on the seafront. This was billed as an amazing interactive experience with an aquarium. The interactive experience was a little pricey, so we stuck with the aquarium option. It was pleasant enough, but strangely for a modern aquarium, little in the way of interactivity – though we did get to coo at a baby seal and I took pictures of baby hammerhead sharks in the big shark pool.
Learning by doing
Hurrah! So we went to the beach for our surf lesson. Daughter went off with the kids group, and I stayed with the grown ups, feeling rather lardy and middle-aged in my pink surfing t-shirt and wetsuit. We soon worked out that the teacher’s English was about as good as my French, so I asked him to conduct the lesson in very slow, basic French, and the other student surfers were very patient and lovely.
The only way to learn to surf is to do it. The teacher made us practise the basic stance on the beach, and then threw us into the waves. When we fell off the board, we started again, with lots of encouragement and feedback on keeping our fesses up. This worked really well, and I managed to kneel on the board a few times before pitching into the sea for the millionth time. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I did learn how to fall off gracefully, and my daughter was nearly standing on the board after two hours. Even though it was hard work, it was a good learning experience.
Show and tell
The rain drove us off the beach for the rest of the holiday, and into various museums and “experiences”. The standard small museum experience went a bit like this.
- Visitors pay their money, and are directed to a small anteroom, where a DVD is played telling them a variety of interesting facts (in French) about the topic in hand.
- Visitors are then ejected to wander around the museum. Everything is behind glass. you can’t touch anything, and everybdy whispers.
- Exit via the gift shop.
At the Sare caves, we saw lots of pictures of bats. Baby bats are very cute. The presentation is entirely a voice-over (usually going too fast for lazy English ears), plus a series of still pictures of countryside, a diagram, pictures of a cave and then..it’s over. We were treated to a son et lumiere exhibition where the group were directed to stand in certain spots, then lights went on, plinky-plonky music played, and a disembodied voice talked about pre-history, or rock formations, or water. The lights went off, and we moved on. The presentation ended with a bit of philosophising and odd projections of blinking cartoon eyes on the cave wall in front of us.
The museum of Chocolate actually played an English version of the DVD, which was nice. Except that Sarah the Instructional Designer fidgeted angrily at the bad translation, the dilatory editing, and the strange interpolation of old-school Playschool-like films of chocolate production lines (good) with still pictures of a cartoon cocoa bean in Aztec costume. I couldn’t help feeling that this DVD needed a presenter and a few interviews – perhaps something that encouraged the audience to empathise with the process. For example, the cocoa farmer could have taken us through the rather tortured process of picking and ripening cocoa beans and getting them ready for market. A supervisor or chocolatier could have taken us through the manufacturing process. It would have personalised the process, and made it more real for visitors.
The chocolate memorabilia and machines were laid out in two small exhibition rooms, and we got a free cup of chocolate when we had finished (before exiting via the gift shop)
So, what were they doing wrong, in my view? The lack of interaction is probably advisable when you’re dealing with large groups, particularly if you want to keep costs down, but plonking visitors in front of a projector doesn’t seem a particularly constructive way to teach. There was little opportunity to ask questions, no real explanation of how the exhibits fitted in with the production process and the emphasis seemed to be on pushing as many visitors through the museum as possible. Not sure if that’s a good experience, a good use of technology, or if many people return after they’ve nabbed the free chocolate.
Compare this with, say, the new Planetarium at Greenwich, where technology has been used to create interactive star maps and mission simulators that are not only great fun, but actually teach you something about basic astrophysics, and give you an idea of the planning considerations of a space mission. You also have real people: astronomers, astrophysicists etc talking to you, not a disembodied voice.
There was an excellent museum of Basque history and culture in Bayonne, that combined an interesting layout with fascinating artefacts (including a giant espadrille). Taking you from the original aims of the museum, through themed rooms on the Basque way of life, family relations, religion, death and sport (pelote – it’s like playground hand-tennis, only harder and faster), that left us feeling enriched and educated. There were videos that demonstrated various local techniques, paintings, and an old 30s film of Basque life that showed local dances like the Fandango (yes it’s real), and a real attempt to engage the imagination of the audience.