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Learning Maths Outside the Classroom - Maths Trail at the British Museum

This page has been archived. The content was correct at the time of original publication, but is no longer updated.
Created on 22 November 2008 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 21 October 2010 by ncetm_administrator

Museums and Art GalleriesMuseums and Art Galleries

Maths Trail at the British Museum


1. Introduction

The British Museum ran a very popular Maths day for a year 7 group from Friern Barnet over two days. The links below will give you a flavour of the activities during the visit. The contact at the British Museum for schools wanting to discuss a visit is:

Paul Clifford, ICT Projects Manager, Learning and Audiences, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG (020 7323 8778) www.britishmuseum.org

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2. Overview of the Maths Trail Activities

The main objective of the Maths Trail Trip is to encourage the students to engage with Mathematics in what at first might feel like a non mathematical environment and context and to give them an experience of feeling like a mathematician and being mathematical. This will include:-
  • Thinking about and communicating ideas
  • Engaging in problem solving activities
  • Creating and identifying mathematical problems within given contexts
We would also like the students to feel like they are walking in the footsteps of ancient mathematicians.

We also want to ensure the students have fun and enjoy their experience.

How the Day Will Work
On arrival the students will book in at the Ford Young Visitors Centre in the Clore Education Centre and drop off bags and coats. The students will need to record the work they do so should bring pencils, paper, clipboards, (we have found A5 clipboards to be useful, easy to carry and store) and digital cameras are very useful too. I have 8 that can be borrowed as well as a DV Cam if the teachers want to record the day.

The students will first be given a brief introduction to the museum the objectives of the day and the activities via a prepared film that will include some interesting mathematical history including rioting over the devils number zero, the murder of Hippasus for mentioning the dangerous ratio and Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise), lasting around 15 minutes.

With 75 students, groups of 5 make sense, and we can use the foyer outside the Lecture Theatre to pass out the packs. The resources each group will need will be in a rucksack (supplied) and will include equipment such as a protractor, string, a weight (to build a simple clinometer), a ruler, camera (if necessary), simple astrolabe kit, papyrus, an activity sheet and sealed envelopes with clues to each of the activities (sealed because this might provide some feedback on how the groups did on their activities).

The groups will then venture into the galleries to start their activities, two groups will go round together because some of the activities will include one group setting another group challenges based on the maths they are doing for that particular activity and one activity includes playing the Giant Game of Ur which is best done with two groups. One or three groups can also go around in the case of an odd number of groups.

The groups will carousel around the different activities, however the Giant Game of Ur will be a timed event with each group being allocated a time, this is because this activity lasts for up to 30 minutes.

Lunch is at 12.30 until 1.00 and afterwards the groups will continue their activities.

Ending the Day
The students can either carry on with the activities until the end of the visit follow up can be done in the school in future lessons or a plenary can be done in the lecture theatre before the leave, ‘giving the answers’. One activity will also have a special clue and there will be a prize to the group that can solve the puzzle which is based on the ‘dangerous ratio’, again this can be done at the museum in the plenary or back at school.

The Activities
The activity sheets will give full instructions for each activity and directions on how to get to the next activity which will be in mathematical language (either puzzles for room numbers expressed perhaps as algebra or in hieroglyphs or angles/directions to follow).

Each activity will last approximately 15 minutes and will have plenty of extensions to extend and challenge the most gifted students.  

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3. Pupils Voice 

Trip to the British Museum
In the trip to the British Museum, we were put into groups.  We were given bags which contain the equipment we needed for our tasks.  On a sheet of paper were the instructions for where we had to go to, so we had to find where it was.  Clues were given on the sheet and we had to complete the tasks.  The aim was to finish first.  This experience was great because it was challenging and we got to learn a lot about the museum, details I wouldn’t have normally have paid attention to. (Daniela)

The Maths Challenge
When we went to the British Museum we did not know hat we would be expecting.  We were on a quest to figure out why one man was thrown overboard of a ship because they thought he was a witch.  We went through many enduring tasks and still didn’t know what happened to the man.  We played games, measured angles, counted bags of grain.  We thought it was hopeless.  Even though we didn’t figure out why the man was thrown overboard, it was an enjoyable day and had FUN! (Gemma) The British Museum

The museum was better than the classroom!!  We got to do challenges, that were quite interesting and we got to learn new stuff about the historic side of Maths, which is something we don’t see often! (Hannah) 

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4. Weblinks for the British Museum

Schools Brochure
Ancient Civilizations websites:

Greek Temples 

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5. The Giant Game of Ur

This activity is based around games theory and is based on the Royal Game of Ur, one of the worlds oldest surviving board games from Mesopotamia which can be found in gallery 56. The students will have to work out how the game is played, play it, work out strategies to test and because the game takes longer than they have time to play it they will have to come up with a mathematical to solution to ‘which team is the winner’. This activity is located in the Great Court.  

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6. Measuring Large Stone Objects

This activity is based around using the equipment in the back packs to build a simple clinometer. Using feet, a ruler and clinometer students can measure the height of a range of sculptures and monuments. The tasks get more difficult and include using the equipment to work out the circumferences of objects such as columns.  This activity will be located in  Room 4, the Egyptian sculpture gallery.


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7. Describing Pattern & Shapes using Mathematical Language

Using patterns from the Islamic world students will have to describe shapes, patterns and tessellation to the other group (‘logo’ style or perhaps through co-ordinates) who will then draw/create them. This activity will be located in room 34, the Islamic art gallery.


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8. Egyptian Fractions & Other Puzzles

Using a reworked imitation of the Rhind Papyrus pupils have to solve several puzzles using the Egyptian numbering system. This activity is located in Room 61.

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9. Number Systems of Ancient Cultures

This activity involves studying the early numbering systems of Babylonia (Base 60), Roman numerals, and early Greek (Minoan) and exploring the limitations of each system using counting and recording, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. This activity is located in Room 56, Case 3, and Rooms 69 and 70.


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10. Chinese Tangrams

The Tangram is an ancient Chinese puzzle. It consists of 7 shaped pieces known as Tans. The idea is too create pictures using all the tans and conforming to the 4 simple rules of the puzzle.  This activity consists of rebuilding a Tangram square from the 7 Tan pieces. They can then duplicate the square to make their own Tans but only using folding and a pair of scissors (no rulers).They can then start making pictures. The activity will be located in Room 33.


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11. Measuring a Colossal Arm with using any Equipment

This activity uses a colossal arm in the Egyptian Sculpture gallery and poses the question ‘how big was the statue that this arm came from?’ Using a unit of measurement that they choose (fist, foot, spread hand) and measuring a persons arm and their size they can obtain a ratio and therefore work out how big the statue would have been. Extensions will be ‘how big seated and would it fit in the room its in?’ This activity is located in Room 4, the Egyptian Sculpture gallery.


 Click here to download the activity sheet (pdf).
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12. Measuring the Nereid Monument

 Click here to download the activity sheet (pdf). 
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13. Greek Temples & Building Scenarios

Building Greek Temples
  • Your town is very poor, so the bigger your temple is, the less decoration you can afford. What you do have is lots of space to build on. What will your temple look like?
  • Your town is very rich and visited by people from all over the known world. You need a temple that shows people how rich and important your town is but your town in on the side of a mountain and you don’t have much space to build on. What will your temple look like?
  • Your town is not rich, and you do not have any marble but what you do have is lots of space it build on. What will your temple look like?
  • Your town is very rich and visited by people from all over the known world. You need a temple that shows people how rich and important your town is but your town has no marble. What will your temple look like?
  • Your town is very rich and visited by people from all over the known world. You need a temple that shows people how rich and important you are but your town has no artists or sculptors. What will your temple look like?
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14. Doric or Ionic Budget Sheet

Budget decisions when building a Greek temple.

 Click here to download the activity sheet (pdf). 
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15. Greek Temples KS2 Teacher Notes

Support notes for KS2 teachers including relevant websites.

 Click here to download the teacher notes (pdf). 
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