The educator and the curator: a vital partnership


With the invaluable assistance of Sydney Living Museums’ knowledgeable and inspirational curators, the Learning Team develops a wide range of engaging education programs for school students.

SLM’s Learning Team develops innovative and highly regarded curriculum-based programs and delivers them across eight SLM sites as well as remotely through our video-conferencing facilities. In 2016–17, more than 55,000 students visited our sites; 70 per cent of these were primary school students. Teacher feedback consistently rates their experience highly across learning outcomes, student engagement, price and customer service. This underscores our strong reputation as a provider of high-quality place-based learning programs and a provider of excellence in interpreting the History curriculum.

A collaboration of expertise

The Learning Team works closely with the curators who work across SLM’s portfolio of museums, historic houses and gardens. Their expertise and deep knowledge of our sites and stories support the development of new education programs and ensure that established programs exist as ‘living documents’, responding to new research, interpretation and collection items, and new evidence as it comes to light. In formal meetings, countless emails and spur-of-the-moment conversations in hallways and courtyards, curators offer insights that are invaluable to the work we do.

As well as helping to shape the content of our programs, curators participate in the ongoing formal training and professional development of the curriculum program deliverers (CPDs) who are responsible for the day-to-day delivery of the education programs. These training sessions give CPDs opportunities to clarify queries, handle collection items and learn firsthand about ongoing research.

Spicing up the past

In 2014 the Learning Team set about redeveloping From Stew to Stirfry, a longstanding program at Elizabeth Farm for Food Technology students in Stage 5 (Years 9 and 10), with advice from Jacqui Newling, Assistant Curator and passionate Colonial Gastronomer, and Curator Dr Scott Hill. Our objectives were to strengthen the program’s links to the site’s history and to use gastronomy as a means to immerse students in an investigation of the everyday life of the Macarthur family. We aimed to contextualise the site’s food culture by giving students a chance to taste and work with ingredients that we know were used at Elizabeth Farm in the past, and to create products that they could take home. 

There are so many references to food and cooking in the Macarthur records and at Elizabeth Farm itself, so the site was ideal for the task’, says Jacqui. ‘For example, we know that the Macarthurs bought imported curry powder, spices and condiments from local merchants, so curry was a logical theme to draw upon.’

Today, the gentle scent of spices wafts from the colonial kitchen once more, as students create a curry powder mix based on Dr Kitchiner’s Curry Powder. We don’t know if this particular blend was used by the Macarthurs, but it’s typical of the 1820s, the period focused on. From a curatorial perspective, the resulting activity was an ideal fit because it uses ingredients that are manageable within the historic environment – a prime consideration – and have provenance to the Macarthur experience at Elizabeth Farm. Similarly, for the Learning Team it provided an opportunity to use evidence-based research to develop an immersive and creative hands-on activity for students, one that helps them to achieve the required learning outcomes for Food Technology and also builds their historical knowledge about early-19th-century colonial society.

Jacqui and Scott’s input resulted in a revised program grounded in the latest research, with strong syllabus links. Following the successful relaunch, there was a significant growth in bookings. After their visit, we also followed up with participating students, asked them to record what they made with the curry powder and invited them to post their recipes on SLM’s website. See for details.

Fresh research, fresh resources

In 2015 we worked with Curator Nerida Campbell to investigate the similarity between the distinctive weapon held by bushranger John Gilbert in an 1865 newspaper engraving of his final shootout and the double-trigger, five-shot Tranter Revolving Rifle displayed at the Justice & Police Museum. We found evidence that they were the same model. Based on that research, Stage 3 (Years 5 and 6) students who visit the site now examine the engraving before heading off to locate the weapon for themselves. By combining evidence from documentary and physical sources, students practise the historical skills of locating information relevant to inquiry questions in a range of sources, and comparing information from those sources.

Curators Dr Fiona Starr and Michael Lech, and Megan Martin, Head of Collections & Access, all helped to shape and resource the Irish Orphan Trunk Project – an education initiative awarded Highly Commended at the 2017 National Trust Heritage Awards. This collaborative work is a powerful stimulus for students to engage and empathise with the experiences of orphaned teenage girls who from 1848 journeyed from overcrowded Irish poorhouses to unknown futures in NSW, staying at the Hyde Park Barracks on arrival. As the reproduction wooden trunk is unpacked, students pass around basic articles of clothing, sewing items, a few coins, religious books and a treasured moulded cross.

As we develop and evolve our education offerings, we’re privileged to be able to draw on the experience, expertise and ongoing work of SLM curators and researchers.

Four girls in vegetable garden.
Students taking part in From Stew to Stirfry at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © Jeremy Piper for Sydney Living Museums
Drawing of dramatic scene with men shooting in bush setting.
‘Capture and death of Gilbert, the bushranger’ (detail), Frederick Grosse, The Australian News for Home Readers, 24 June 1865. State Library of Victoria
Close up of hands holding prayer book bound with string.
1846 prayer book used during Life at the Barracks: Convicts and Migrants at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photos © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
Spices on a platter.
Students taking part in From Stew to Stirfry at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © Jeremy Piper for Sydney Living Museums

About the Author

Head and shoulders portrait of man standing holding old bottle and in front of shelf of bottles.
Edward Washington
Program Producer – Learning
Public Programs
Ed is part of the Sydney Living Museums learning team, which provides curriculum-based programs to more than 60,000 students and teachers every year. In 2019 he received the Ruth Pope Bequest Annual Travelling Scholarship for international travel and study.

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