The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences Blog


Spiral Bound

21st May 2013 | 0 Comment(s) | The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education engage Early Years and Primary PGCE trainee teachers with a range of settings for learning other than school. Helen Davidson spent the last week of her training in museums and was inspired by meeting Thresholds poet Matthew Hollis at the Sedgwick Museum.

Having spent the last week of my PGCE Primary training on a whirlwind tour of various Cambridge museums – mainly the Fitzwilliam – I find myself spellbound and tongue-tied. More than this, I am ‘spiral bound’. The title is ironic, at least in part, because I find the idea of a neatly-presented, coherent write-up of the week, at this stage, completely unthinkable! More importantly, however, it gestures towards the nature of any museum experience. It is not a neat linear progression: ‘ah, now I understand museums and how to use them with children’. Rather, idea connects to idea and before you know it your reflections spiral, often inward, in an attempt to understand and develop a deeper personal connection with the artefacts. By ‘spiral bound’, then, I mean that I am inevitably drawn into a journey of forging connections, but also simply fascinated by the perpetual draw of real objects, natural and human-created artefacts. So, I shall flick through my spiral-bound sketch book and share a sample of my impressions of the week…

As an English graduate, I begin with a poem, Louis Macneice’s ‘The British Museum Reading Room’. Although the line ‘Some are too much alive and some are asleep’ might seem the most appropriate to a school trip to the museum, the children I saw were ‘Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent’. This hints at the overarching tension lying at the heart of all of the Cambridge museums I visited this week: their very silence has a powerful sort of voice and children entering this space are given the opportunity, in this ‘safe and silent’ world, to find their own voices.

On Monday, my fellow trainee, Peter, and I spent the day roaming around various museum settings. We visited the Museum of Cambridge (was Folk Museum) and spent the morning exploring social history in a 17th century timber-framed building which spent many years as an inn. This collection, being formed almost entirely of everyday objects, finds its source in a deep human need to share stories about our experiences. It is easy to see how this museum makes connections with the children’s own lives and can offer them a wonderfully active and tactile experience of the past that is contextually embedded. The starkness of the Museum of Classical Archaeology by comparison highlights an important difference. These statues of the idealised human form were godlike and distant: we are not meant to identify with them but to aspire and wonder. And wonder we did, wandering between the statues and exploring them from every angle.


We were then treated to a private tour of the Sedgwick Museum which involved examining some myths and legends surrounding this awe-inspiring collection, and thinking about some of the ways into geology that make this erudite and seemingly inaccessible area exciting and available for even very young children. There was, for example, a story kit to tell children about Darwin’s adventures on HMS Beagle with a beautifully crafted blanket in all sorts of colours and textures with secret pockets containing coral, rocks and fossils for children to explore. We were also lucky enough to have the chance to speak to Matthew Hollis, the poet-in-residence at the Sedgwick Museum as part of the Thresholds project. He is yet another hugely inspiring figure and gave us some insight into another way of making connections. He spoke of the role of the poet in days gone by as a figure of great political and social importance, passing on ideas, weaving the stories we tell about ourselves and others (a role now shared with museum educators, it would seem). Matthew was also fascinated by the stories we tell about objects; the mythology surrounding the rocks and fossils in the Sedgwick Museum.


On Thursday evening I attended Matthew’s poetry reading at the museum and listened to his incredible poem, ‘The Stone Man’. I could not help but consider the poem itself as artefact, with its rich evocation of the weight of words, the physicality of printing technology, the design of the written word as an extension of our everyday speech. The tension between the artifice of purposeful poetic creation and the natural fluency of human speech was particularly powerful in the setting of the Sedgwick museum, surrounded by fossils and rocks with their own human stories to tell: the much discussed ‘real objects’.

Over the course of our four days at the Fitzwilliam we were able to observe a number of education sessions all of which facilitated children’s direct engagement with the collection, through questioning which encouraged close observation. Whilst the children demonstrated an obvious respect for the gallery educator’s expertise, they were also empowered to discover and unpack their own responses. A phrase used by one of the museum educators struck me in this regard, as she spoke of respecting the early years audience ‘as interpreters of art on their own terms’. She and others used storytelling as a familiar bridge to the unfamiliar. There was a palpable shift in emphasis: by literally putting their ideas first, before the presentation of any factual information about the artefact, the application of the children’s interpretative skill and the validation of their individual responses became the focus of the session: “anything they pick up about the ancient Greeks is a bonus!”

This persistent focus on empowering young audiences was consistent across the age range, including during a fantastic Widening Participation session for a group of Year 10s. Below is my attempt at an outline of Peter’s profile, drawn (without looking at the page) in one sculptural motion… You’ll have to take my word for it that it is an excellent likeness, if a little Neanderthal. The exercise was part of a wider exploration of identity in art which involved generating rules or conventions which appear to have guided expressions of reputation in ancient civilisations; iconography in Medieval and Renaissance religious art; and the human search for natural forms in abstract shapes in contemporary art.


Had Ian asked for their ideas about these subject areas, I would imagine he would be met with blank looks and shifting feet. As it was, he asked for first impressions and involved them with drawing activities on the gallery floor (surrounded by the artworks themselves) which unearthed a wealth of responses, connections and knowledge upon which to build, and encouraged these young people to consider themselves as artists and interpreters.


It is telling that the most powerful experience of all this week, for me, was being handed an 80 million year old ammonite of my very own. This tapped into that basic human instinct for collection which is shared by children and museum curators alike. I wrote a short rhyming story, ‘The Quiet Ammonite’, which I hope to use to encourage children’s curiosity about the world around them. I wrote holding the ammonite as my talisman (he’s an old hand at that sort of thing) and staring into the tiny spiral. This week has implications for my future practice and will no doubt lead to a shift in emphasis in my teaching as I continue to reflect. Above all, it has filled me with hope that the objects, poems and stories that I share with children in the future, in the classroom and in the museums of Cambridge and beyond, will leave them, as they leave me, ‘spiral-bound’.

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Matthew Hollis at the Sedgwick Museum

13th March 2013 | 0 Comment(s) | The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

Imagine you could take a photograph of your life. Not of a moment in your life, but a photograph that captured your whole life, beginning to end. And imagine that same photograph could also capture your parents’ lives, and their parents’, and in fact everyone’s life who had ever lived. Now let’s imagine that photograph could do more: that it could record a time before human beings, when animals were not like those that we see today, when dinosaurs were youngsters. Ridiculous, you say, no photograph could be so large or could move across time in this way. But rocks are and rocks do. Granted, you cannot see the particular outfit you were wearing on a particular day simply by peering into a rock, but you can learn much about what the world was like at a given time. We know that fossils lock-in life forms that can introduce us to creatures no longer alive; but we don’t need the animal to be present to learn about life on Earth. Iron oxide within a rock may tell us about the changing presence of oxygen in the atmosphere, which in turn allows us to establish the likely kinds of life that the environment supported at the time. Some minerals inform us about temperature: the presence of salt can point to a warmer era when the seas evaporated faster than at other times; till can indicate a period of glaciation. Pollen spores trapped in a rock offer evidence of plant life that allow us to colour the planet with vegetation and picture the kind of creatures that lived off it. In other words, there are clues in the make-up of any rock that indicate what our lives might have been like at the time, if indeed we were living at all. Clues about the air, the seas, the climate, animals, vegetation, food: clues about our ever changing planet, clues about time. Of course decoding these clues takes skill and experience, and fortunately the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge is a hive of such skill and experience. But there is another element that the museum relies upon which you don’t need to be an expert to possess: and that’s curiosity. For two weeks in March and April this spring, I shall be drawing upon mine when I will be Poet in Residence in the Sedgwick Museum. If you at all share my curiosity towards time and the changeable Earth then do come along with me to the museum this spring to peek into the world locked inside of rocks. You might catch me attempting to put curiosity into words. You might catch yourself putting it into words of your own.


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Thin sections at the Sedgwick Museum

12th March 2013 | 0 Comment(s) | The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

Matthew’s preliminary visit to the Sedgwick Museum a couple of weeks ago was a packed day which squeezed in a whistle-stop tour around the Museum and the Department of Earth Sciences from top to bottom, attic to basement, mass spectrometer to mammoth teeth. This project is all about revealing hidden things and looking at our collections in new ways, and one thing a geologist never loses fascination for is the transformation that rocks undergo when they are viewed through a microscope. So we took Matthew to visit Rob in the Sectioning Room, which is not as grim as it sounds. Rob is a craftsman – his job is to carefully turn samples of rock into analytical thin sections mounted on a glass slides. The rock slices are incredibly thin – he painstakingly grinds them down until they are just 30 microns thick, like a human hair – so that even the densest, blackest volcanic rocks become transparent and can be viewed through a petrological microscope to reveal their mineral composition and texture.

Petrological microscopes are specially designed for looking at rocks, and as well as viewing your thin section in either normal or filtered (also known as Plane Polarised) white light, you can also flip a switch called the Analyser. This inserts a second polariser which filters the light that has already been refracted by passing through the thin section before it reaches your eye. The result? You see a rainbow of interference colours, your black rock is suddenly transformed into glorious back-lit stained glass. Different minerals have different colours in cross polarised light because they bend the light coming through them by different amounts. For a petrologist this is important as the colour variations enable telling one mineral from another – which is very hard to do just from looking at a fine-grained black rock.

The development of this microscopy technique in the late 19th/ early 20th century quietly revolutionised the study of igneous and metamorphic rocks. As well as revealing what minerals a rock contained, thin sections allowed geologists to see for the first time how the crystals in a rock fitted together. This in turn gave them clues about which minerals crystallised first, leading to advances in our understanding of the complex processes taking place in magma chambers deep inside the Earth that lead to their formation.

We’re looking forward to introducing Matthew to our collections over the coming weeks, and seeing them through his eyes and his words.

The rock in the picture is a thin section made from one of the volcanic rock samples that Charles Darwin collected from Sant Iago, one of the Galapagos Islands, viewed through cross polarised light.

Annette Shelford, Museum Education Officer

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My Museum Experience

08th March 2013 | 2 Comment(s) | The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

Past and present are co-related. We need to know about the past to make our present and future better. To know about the past and to feel it nothing is better than a museum.

My little museum journey was very interesting. The atmosphere was very harmonious and pleasant. It was inspirational and helped me think in a different manner. Linking rocks and fossils to a poetry in itself is a big challenge which opened up many closed windows of my mind. It made me realise that every rock had a story and every story had a reason, it requires an eye to see it. Some rocks appeared to me like safe vaults which stores secret treasures, thousands of years old. Surprisingly, the rocks and the stones were silent and still yet they were telling so much. My visit was like a conversation with these inanimate objects which animated the past before my eyes.

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As I left the museum  I felt more wiser and I felt more eager to come back again to this museum which though far, was now just a stone’s throw away from my heart.

Kruti Jethwa, student at Manor School

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