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Education | 31/07/2018

School/Work programmes at the Uffizi Galleries. Diary of an experience in progress

School/Work programmes at the Uffizi Galleries. Diary of an experience in progress

“Art Ambassadors” is the group name for the School/Work programmes proposed by the Uffizi Galleries and which, after two years of growth and experience, it is possible to reflect upon, pointing out some of the characteristic features that, with the support of ongoing contact and dialogue with those involved (teachers, students, staff with different roles in the projects), are more innovative and qualifying.

In late autumn of 2015, we began talking about the need to propose projects to schools - the area that is traditionally most important in terms of clients from the Department of School and Young People - which would correspond to that stated in Law 107, known as “La Buona Scuola” [Good School], regarding the School/Work programmes (now referred to as SW). The department, like the rest of the country’s museum system, was dealing with the changes introduced by the Franceschini reform. The arrival of a new director had just been announced, the museum centre was being organised into what is now known as the Uffizi Galleries, and there was some uncertainty as to the administrative fate of a department that had been dealing with the educational aspects of all of Florence’s state museums for the last 45 years.

New features seemed to be the characteristic feature of the period and it was up to us to offer the right ideas to meet these new needs, and to come up with answers to the demands of the moment. One crucial factor was our collaboration with the Regional School Department for Tuscany, with which we had been working through a memorandum of understanding since 2012. Together we began to face the challenge of school/work programmes and, using a previous project known as “Art Ambassadors” that was offered to schools as an opportunity to get hands-on experience in art history skills and foreign languages, we were able to bring a new version to schools, based on new requirements. At the same time, we were committed to understanding the complex order of new regulations on school/work projects thoroughly, both for schools and for the bodies hosting students. The sheer hard work from this first year led to the Memorandum of Understanding, MIUR-MIBACT “Civic Life - TUSCANY SYSTEM", an essential tool for subsequent successful developments in this field. The agreement includes joint commitment from the MIUR [Ministry of Education, Universities and Research], Florence’s autonomous museums and the Tuscany Museum Hub to develop SW programmes that combine education aims with professional training in the specific field of cultural heritage.

As partial satisfaction for all of our efforts and doubtless appreciation for the work of the department is the fact that, although in a brief period of mere months we had to change reference institute, name and email three times, we still were contacted by 24 schools intending to take part in our SW initiatives.

In the second year of the “Good School” Reform, we produced a dossier of specific bureaucratic documents for teachers, which are essential to the smooth operation of the programme. We also extended the offer to school/work programmes specifically for “Green Ambassadors” and “Music Ambassadors”, as well as a new project, the “Fairy Tale Bench”.

If the “Green Ambassadors” and “Music Ambassadors” were a direct progression of the original project - the first with a more specific accent on the history and botanical aspects of historic gardens, and the second aimed expressly at music high schools - the “Fairy Tale Bench” was the result of an existing collaboration with the Teatro della Pergola, training students to be able to tell children stories of their choice, or written by them, in an appealing manner, taking their inspiration from the garden. Young people learn to appreciate the historical and artistic aspects of the garden in which they are working - in our case, the Boboli Gardens - and working alongside those whose job it is to care for the garden, they come to understand both its value as a museum and its destination as a place of leisure for the resident population, above all families with children who represent the users of reference. This project has also made it possible to collaborate with the summer centres run by Florence City Council to guarantee children a good opportunity for recreation and also to get to know the splendid Medici gardens.

Introducing the “Fairy Tale Bench” we have begun collaboration with the Centro di Avviamento all’Espressione, the theatre school of the Teatro della Pergola, a collaboration that has been strengthened to the point of becoming a strategic part of the training of all students taking part in our work experience programme. Together with the educational services of Teatro della Pergola, we have also focused on the possibility of boosting skills linked to speaking, which are useful for the activities to be carried out in the museum, but also in other personal and professional environments in the future. The proposal was not initially easily accepted by schools, but it has been a great success with students and, after an initial period of lessons in the theatre, teachers were able to report back that their students were even performing better in oral tests in class.

Skill-based work has also led us to think more about gradually adapting the spirit of SW activities as envisaged by the Law 107/2015: we thus included meetings with museum staff in training for students to provide them with better awareness of the operations in the areas in which they work. The “Art Ambassador” or “Green Ambassador” activities place young people in an actual work situation: visitors from all over the world come with their varied needs and requests for information; the approach to adults who will be using the guided visit service is already not an easily managed aspect of the programme, but taking charge of and managing unfamiliar spaces and situations, boosts their abilities in terms of collaboration and problem solving. However, the true success of this programme, the genuine aim, is the integration of young people with permanent museum staff, in an interaction that is both functional and able to promote mutual understanding. The desire to qualify the professional element of our SW programmes in an evident manner was also at the origin of an innovative programme entitled “Cultural Heritage Professionals”, set up as an experiment in the 2016-17 school year, thanks to collaboration with the Istituto Peano, and now an integral part of our programme for this year, for eight classes from Florence’s schools.

The programme follows the guidelines from the MIUR for a coherent three-year implementation of the SW programme to allow students to present a well thought-out report on the experience during their examination. In the first year of the programme, which is free in terms of the services offered by the Uffizi Galleries, there is a full calendar of training meetings to teach the students not only about the operation of a large museum, but also the specific activities such as those carried out by the Protection Unit of the Carabinieri; at the end of the training stage, students are placed in some of the offices and departments or used for Info Desk activities at the Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti.

In the second year of the programme, students become Art and Green Ambassadors according to the now established training and operational procedures and in the final school year, which concludes with a state examination, students write their own report on their experiences at the Uffizi Galleries, always with the aid and collaboration of the Department of Schools and Young People.

The “Cultural Heritage Professionals” programme, dedicated to students from schools in Florence or the immediate vicinity, has inspired another programme, open from this school year to all of the schools in Italy and already quite a success: a totally free project, “A day at the Uffizi, on stage and in the wings”, open to all Italian schools with an SW programme in Cultural Heritage. It allows all participants to achieve certification for six hours of work experience. This offer includes a visit to the Uffizi Galleries or, on request and for special educational needs, to another museum in the group such as, for example, an institute in fashion, the Museum of Fashion and Costume. The day will continue with a lesson on the workings of a large museum, including explanations of the different offices and departments. It will end with a visit to one or two of the areas not usually open to the public, such as the Collection of Prints and Drawings, the Uffizi Library, or the Photographic Archive.

During this school year, we are working with a group of students from the Liceo Michelangelo in Florence, to develop a new SW programme specifically developed for students attending high school specializing in classical studies  but also suitable for other schools, and known as “"What the Statues narrate. From ancient rhetoric to modern narrative”. Starting from the now lost knowledge of the iconological reasons for placing specific statues in certain contexts in order to remind our educated visitors of ethical, civic or moral teachings. With the precious help of our archaeologist, Fabrizio Paolucci, we have imagined finding these cultural references and analysing them with students, who, with the aid of other lessons in the Gallery, take them on board, learning to recognise the importance of the collection of ancient statues in the Uffizi and creating brief narratives for specific groups of statues, metaphorically giving them a voice. At the end of this part of the historic, artistic, philosophical and literary educational process, there is a period of training at the Centro di Avviamento all’Espressione, educational service of the Teatro della Pergola, with the aim of creating an event/show to take place at the Uffizi Galleries, where the ancient sculptures are preserved and which this year, inaugurated the “Uffizi Live” season.

This school year too, conditions are right for the development and trial of a new proposal from autumn 2018. This is inspired by the transmission of intangible cultural heritage, a strongly innovative project that will affect a type of work to characterise the ideal of excellence that is Florence. We don’t intend to say too much about this new programme, which will be presented to schools and local people by Director Eike Schmidt during a press conference.

Diversifying the SW programmes, adding to the opportunities for relationships and contact with those employed in museums, simplifying bureaucracy as far as possible. This all sums up the commitment of the department for a work experience project that combines education in cultural heritage with career orientation, and cultural growth with a new awareness of career opportunities and responsibilities. Students become interested in the places where they carry out their tasks and at the same time, they realise how many operating functions and positions are needed to ensure the smooth running of such a complex, fascinating mechanism as a museum or other cultural centre, such as a historic garden, a library, an archaeological dig, a theatre or an archive. To make valid proposals for SW experience in the Cultural Heritage sector means not only “Good School” but also showing students - and others - just how much our sector has to offer for the economy and how much it needs new input from people willing to commit to safeguarding and making the most of our cultural heritage. The Uffizi Galleries aim to be an example of best practice for the sector and this is confirmed by constant growth in applications and the positive reviews from teachers and students who have worked with us and who have become, more than just users of our programme, genuine co-protagonists.

This consideration has led to a series of observations made during the course of the programme. The Department work group, which is highly committed to understanding the spirit behind and the practices of SW, started to appreciate certain conduct and group dynamics only when activities have been implemented in the different areas. Thus we discovered some extremely important but unexpected results. The programmes did not only achieve the targets, they went far beyond our expectations in psychological and sociological terms. While processing this situation, it was very useful for us to listen to the stories from teachers but above all, from direct observation of the way in which the students reacted when put to the test, not only by exhaustive training but also and above all by activities with a significant degree of responsibility.

During the first training meeting, generally held by me, students are reminded, tactfully and with lightness, to present themselves for work in clothing that reflects their respect towards the specific location in which they will be working and towards the visiting public.

Students surpassed our most optimistic expectations. They often arrived in jackets (even their parents were astounded and in at least one case reported by a teacher, called in to ask the reason for such unusually smart dressing) and the girls wore pretty, professional clothing. Some groups even invented a kind of uniform and got changed before they started work. This is a small gesture but it does communicate their wish to carry out their assigned tasks to the best of their abilities.

Another interesting aspect that it was possible to ascertain during the work experience, was the way in which the groups of students organised themselves to manage their work spaces and to make sure that each of them could have contact with visitors. Museum locations often have obligatory routes, presenting attractions to the public which can create assemblages or induce visitors to undervalue some works and areas, in spite of these being of great interest. Some groups invented a type of relay, bringing tourists to their companions from room to room and therefore constructing a varied narration with flow.

Many of these ideas were suggested by the museum educators who were in charge of training, but the students were able to put them into practice and to work as a team in a way that was not just good for the service but above all, it created a brand new class or group cohesion that would have been more difficult to achieve within the school building.

On more than one occasion, teachers told us about students who were not particularly brilliant or hardworking becoming particularly active and responsible in performing their Ambassadors’ activities. In some cases, these were students who had on more than one occasion expressed a wish to abandon their studies, but who found a new motivation from this work experience, going back to normal school work with improved self-esteem, convincing them to continue with their chosen studies.

This element seems particularly important, since abandoning studies is one of the most serious problems in the school system and not only in Italy. Young adults often have problems when it comes to looking at themselves and often enter into a spiral where a lack of success at school leads them to wishing to leave, to gain independence more quickly at work but without the necessary acquisition of a valid cultural preparation. A gratifying experience such as the one offered by the “Art Ambassadors” school and work experience, with contact with people who will not label you since they do not know you and who are, in general, full of compliments for what you do, helps you to find a new faith in yourself, build up your reputation with other students and find motivation to complete your studies.

Last, but by no means least, is the unexpected result from placing first-generation Italian students in work groups with the precise instruction to use, when the opportunity presented itself, their native language, as they normally speak at home. This happened after we were able to observe a pair of Russian students who accompanied four groups of tourists to the Boboli Gardens and who translated the visitors’ comments from the original Russian into Italian. Their enthusiasm at being able to convey a cultural heritage that they considered their own, since they lived in Florence, into their home language had a profound effect on them. After this experience, we made it customary to proceed this way and the effect has been to increase the validity of the project, expanding it into cultural mediation.

All progress, as is evident from the above, comes from continued dialogue with all of those who have taken part in the experience: students, teachers, office staff, museum educators and parents, who in some cases wanted to let us know how much they have appreciated the project. This way of proceeding is a characteristic of the way that the educational department at the Uffizi Galleries works, guaranteeing results in a regime of full sharing and transparency, ensuring any critical issues for the SW programmes are minor and significantly below the percentages recorded for failing at school.

Working with students within the age range involved in the SW programme is not always easy and the best results are achieved when they are made to feel responsible and protagonists of actions that require everyone to do their job well.


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