The Museum of Everything

What makes the perfect classroom? Ask twenty different teachers and they will give you twenty different answers. Some will prioritise seating; others, resources; my favourite kind of teacher will favour a well-stocked class library (of course!).

But when it comes right down to it, all their answers will point in the same direction: the perfect classroom is an environment that encourages and nurtures learning. And at Wyborne Primary School, tucked away in an unassuming corner of south-east London, they have arguably built the perfect classroom.

It’s called the Museum of Everything.

Into the Museum

I arrive at Wyborne half an hour early, where I’m greeted by Louise, the English Subject Leader. One corner of the school – a typical Victorian red-brick building – is a building site; Louise explains that they’re updating the school and making it into a modern learning environment, whilst preserving the charm and character of the original building.

We discuss the well-known drawbacks of these kinds of schools (rooms with ceilings so high their have their own weather system; the costs of heating) and agree that there’s a lot can be done to improve them.

Inside the school I’m met with an incredible display of near life-size papier-mâché animals (a sheep and a walrus) along with a beautiful replica Roman helmet. Through a doorway, in the school hall, I can glimpse an enormous blue whale hanging from the ceiling.

This is all part of the school’s ‘Museums’ topic: the animals were made by the children (with help!) before they went on their summer holidays, and through the term each year group will fill display boards around the school with their work. It’s a brilliant topic, encouraging the children to be inquisitive about the world around them whilst bringing together a variety of artifacts and highlighting the connections between them.

Off to one side of the reception area is a nondescript door with a black lion’s-head door knocker. The door used to lead to a perfectly ordinary classroom, but when the children returned from their holidays they found that the knocker had mysteriously appeared, and the door itself was firmly locked … I’m enchanted already.

Photo: Wyborne Primary

James, the headteacher, joins us. He is obviously as eager as I am for the tour to begin, so we waste no time. James walks me through the method they use to introduce the children to the Museum.

First they use the door knocker (everyone knocks three times, apparently), then try the handle. The door doesn’t open.

Next James opens the door a crack, and invites me to look inside and tell him what I can see. I put my eye to the gap, and immediately spot a Spider-Man toy hanging on a picture of an astronaut. It’s a wonderfully eccentric image, and tells me that what lies within is no ordinary museum.

Finally, James opens the door and we step inside. My heart sinks a little. It’s a tiny room, about the size of a small bathroom, the ceiling no more than a foot or two above my head. It’s crammed with a bizarre and eclectic mix of pictures, books, toys, and other random paraphernalia, but it’s still not quite what I had expected.

“Smaller than I thought,” I joke, covering my disappointment.

James laughs, and explains that they bring the children in and invite them to explore the room and the ‘exhibits’, to knock on the floor and ceiling and walls. I do the same, and when I have exhausted every corner of the tiny space, James grasps a tall candle-stand next to the back wall, pulls on it, and the entire wall rolls to one side, flooding the tiny space with warm golden light, and we step into the Museum of Everything.

For a moment I’m speechless. I stand and look all around me, because right now that’s all I can do. The Museum is a typical Victorian classroom, with that high ceiling Louise and I were talking about. But this classroom has been completely transformed, turning it into a magical space that feels a thousand miles away from the school I have just left.

A wooden gallery runs along two walls, with a grand staircase leading up to it. An ornate fireplace flickers with virtual flames, beneath a picture frame that conceals an enormous monitor displaying images of mist-wreathed hills. Next to the fireplace is another door, with a sign above it that reads ‘Department of the Imagination’. In the middle of the room is a long, polished table surrounded by high-backed chairs with chandeliers shining above it. Beneath the gallery is a row of display cabinets labelled ‘Stone Age’ and ‘Ancient Egypt’, filled with artifacts from those eras, and above the cabinets are more shelves with more artifacts from everywhere in time and space: helmets, masks, books, pictures, jewellery, precious stones … it goes on and on and on, and all I want to do is stand and take it all in.

It really is a Museum of Everything.

Building the Museum

Once I have recovered enough to be able to speak, James and Louise talk me through the Museum’s inception.

It began in early 2019 with an immersive performance piece at the school, in collaboration with Punchdrunk Enrichment. The piece was called the Lost Lending Library, and it transformed the staff room into a magical space enhanced with light and sound to give the impression the children were travelling to different places. Much like the Museum, the Library appeared one day and remained in place for two weeks; then (unlike the Museum) it moved on – leaving behind only a map of its travels around the world.

The piece was a huge success, and it captured the children’s imaginations. They spoke in hushed tones of the unseen Librarian who travelled with the Library, and when the time came for the project to end they continued to talk about it long afterwards.

What the project had done was to engage the children’s sense of wonder, a key emotion when it comes to learning. I mean the word as a noun and a verb: the feeling of childlike amazement and fascination, as well as the freeform process of considering and exploring ideas. In a world seemingly obsessed with testing and grading children of all ages, here was an opportunity to break out of rigid curricular constraints and let their minds soar.

The experience of working with Punchdrunk Enrichment stayed with James through the year, and when the country went into lockdown and teaching largely moved online, he began to think about a way of making the experience permanent.

The first and most immediate concern was the cost. Surely such an ambitious idea would be prohibitively expensive?

Not at all, James explains cheerfully. The biggest expense was the staircase and gallery, which had to be installed professionally in order to make the best and safest use of the double-height Victorian classroom. Aside from that, everything that fills the Museum has come from eBay, Facebook, friends, family, and probably a few skips. It’s the beauty of the concept: it’s supposed to be a place filled with odds and ends from all over the world. Eccentricity is at its heart.

Staff joined in with a will, donating pieces, scouring online marketplaces, and sourcing expertise to fix clocks, repair chairs and tables, and build the beautiful display cabinets. It really was a collaborative effort; each piece in the Museum already has a story behind it, and as time goes by James hopes to keep adding to the store of artifacts and books, enhancing and deepening the Museum until it becomes as much a record of the life of the school as it is a learning space.

One thing James is particularly keen on is the de-colonising of the curriculum, steering away from a UK-centric view of the world and acknowledging the varied backgrounds of the children who will be using the Museum. He hopes that over time it will take on a truly international feel, placing the historical and geographical topics in a global context.

Using the Museum

The Museum is a practical learning space. It has a monitor and sound system for displaying video and learning materials, and ample space for a class of children to fit in. The display cabinets contain the topic materials that would otherwise sit in a box in a storage room for a large part of the year; here, they are on permanent display, and I can well imagine children drawing links between different topic areas now that they are close at hand.

It is already being used: when I arrived, I had to wait for a class to leave before I could look around. Louise described how the children sit everywhere: in the gallery, on the stairs, in the chairs, and around the table. It’s a unique experience, and a perfect environment for reading stories aloud. It’s exciting and moving to realise that this is not a gimmick, or a temporary flight of fancy: it’s a living, breathing classroom, albeit one unlike any you’ve seen before.

Like the Library before it, the Museum has a mysterious, unseen custodian: the Curator, who will regularly bring new artifacts for the children to explore. Hilariously for one year 6 class, the opening of the Museum coincided with the arrival of a student teacher. When they were told that the Curator would shortly be bringing some new exhibits to the Museum, one of the students wondered aloud if this was why the student teacher wouldn’t be in school the next day, because he had said he would be “Finding things out.” It’s a brilliant example of how the Museum is already sparking the imaginations of the children: they are writing their own stories, and creating their own mythology without any prompting from the teaching staff.

When one child found a discarded passport photograph in a table drawer in a Museum (clearly belonging to the table’s previous owner), they immediately began to question who it was, and how the photograph had come to be there. As I walked around I found myself opening drawers and looking in cupboards, anticipating the discovery of some hidden gem.

The ‘Department of Imagination’ doorway is one of the Museum’s most popular features, and has already started more than a few arguments about what might lie beyond it. (No-one seems to mind that it’s clearly just a door fixed to a solid wall – this is all part of the contract between the Museum and its visitors.) James gleefully explains how they are planning to install a peephole, into which different backgrounds can be inserted, further enhancing the illusion.

Lest anyone should dismiss this as play-acting, or some kind of distracting game, let us remember that what the Museum is doing is nurturing skills vital for successful learning in adult life: curiosity, imagination, interrogation, and a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to the ‘accepted’ explanation for things. It is stuffed with non-fiction books on every subject under the sun, as well as plenty of works of fiction to provide the balance of lived human experience alongside straightforward information.

A Museum for the Ages

I could keep writing about the Museum of Everything for … well, forever – because the Museum will never be finished. It will continue to grow and change, taking something from everyone who passes through and preserving it for future visitors. In this unassuming corner of south-east London is a TARDIS by any other name: transporting children backwards and forwards through time, and all around the universe, as well as connecting generations of children and adults for years to come.

Photo: Wyborne Primary

I fully expect to return and visit multiple times (I joked with James that I would happily become the school’s author-in-residence, and spend my days tapping away at my laptop in the corner), and each time I visit I fully expect to find something new and enchanting. I expect to hear of new ways in which the Museum is being used, and new stories surrounding it and its Curator. I also expect to hear of the children who grow up and leave it behind, taking with them the lessons they have learned from it: be curious, use your imagination, explore, question, investigate. The world is an enormous place, and we will never finish learning about it; but when it comes to learning, the destination often isn’t the most important thing: it’s the journey you take to get there.

The Museum of Everything deserves to be replicated in schools up and down the country. It doesn’t take much: a little financial investment to get it going, and a large investment of time, energy, love and care to make sure it becomes a place where children love to go and love to learn. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all want schools to be?

I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to James and Louise, along with all the staff and children at Wyborne Primary, for building the Museum of Everything and allowing me to look around it.

I would also like to recommend the Museum to all my readers. Please get in touch with the school with your thoughts and feedback, and if any authors or illustrators would like to visit the Museum I am sure you will find a warm welcome.

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