As part of the first stage of my PhD research I have been visiting a number of ‘creative laboratories’ in cultural and educational settings. In doing so, my aim has been to observe the diverse ways in which interdisciplinary teams of people have approached the construction of children’s creative environments in different contexts.
My PhD is an action research project. This is to say that it is comprised of a series of iterative research cycles, in my case four, which each seek to build upon the findings and reflections of the preceding cycle. Within my project, each cycles proposes to develop, challenge and reflect upon the construction of a critically reflective heuristic thinking tool that will be used to guide conversations between artists, curators, educators and researchers developing creative environments for children in art galleries.
This first stage of action research is referred to as ‘the reconnaissance’ in which an individual revisits and reflects upon what they know about their practice based upon their prior experience. It is also a time to scope out the broader field of practice to assess where one’s practice fits within wider theories, literature and practice. The ambition of doing so is to identify knowledge gaps and concerns around one’s practice which will be addressed in subsequent research cycles. My ‘reconnaissance’ has provided an excellent opportunity to reflect upon my work as a children’s curator. I have always found that one of the best ways to sharpen and deepen my ideas is to connect with people who are interested in similar theoretical concepts (i.e child-centred practice, social constructivism, Reggio Emilia, loose parts theory) but apply them in different ways and in different contexts.
Over the past 12 months I have visited The Tinkering Studio at The Exploratorium, The Atelier Van Licht at the Central Museum in Utretch, the artist-in-residency programme at Lillian de Lissa Children’s Centre & Nursery in Birmingham and the Bay Area Children’s Museum in Sausalito, CA to observe and learn more about the construction of different ‘creative labratory’ approaches. Last month I visited another, the Children’s Wing at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark. I had heard numerous colleagues talk about the space over the past few years and was excited to finally have the opportunity to go myself.
The Children’s Wing opened in 1994 and is made up of a three-story space purpose-built space especially for children. Whilst I was there I met with one of the artist-educators working on the programme who discussed the team’s approach. The aim of the activities is to encourage children to explore the notion that ‘small-scale experimentation with materials and ideas are the foundations of artworks displayed throughout the gallery.’ Underscoring this premise is an understanding that through encouraging children’s exploration of materials and artistic processes, they will gain a sense of curiosity around the art featured in the gallery spaces.
The Wing consists of five separated spaces each featuring a different craft or creative play activity all of which are supervised by artist educators. Outside the Wing, a Lake Garden extends into the surrounding natural landscape of the Louisiana property. The busiest area appeared to be the permanent painting and clay studio (pictured above), which fills the entire bottom floor of the Wing.
The number of families visiting the space impressed me, especially considering it was a Tuesday morning. Everyone seemed to be having a fun time with many young children making and playing alongside their parents and grandparents. It was fantastic to see the human resource investment put into the space. The artist educators were both greeting families and engaging in reflective conversations with children around what they were making.
Two main questions kept popping in my head whilst visiting. Firstly, what are the benefits and challenges of having a dedicated children’s space within an art gallery? Many art galleries have developed them including the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Victoria and GoMA in Glasgow to name a small few. A dedicated space has many benefits including:
- The ability to use a wide variety of materials, such as clay and paint, that conservation requirements prohibit the use of within the gallery space.
- Little or no tension between children and other visitors who prefer a quiet and relaxed museum visit.
- The ability for education teams to develop a programme independently of curatorial decisions, allowing for more flexibility and freedom in programming. Anyone who has ever worked in gallery education will know that tension does often exist between education and curatorial teams, especially within institutions that perceive education as a ‘tag-on’ to adult art exhibitions.
However there are also numerous challenges to consider when having a dedicated children’s space. These include:
- Promoting the ‘islanding’ of children and does not encourage their connection with the gallery as a whole or other people visiting the gallery.
- Doesn’t necessarily mean that the institution as a whole values young visitors if a mentality remains of ‘children are welcome here but only in that contained, closed-off area near the toilets where none can see or hear them.’ This attitude is not the case at the Louisiana but I have certainly seen this elsewhere… An institutional commitment to children requires institution-wide conversations on topics such as the display of art (i.e. if a fragile sculpture is displayed that cannot be touched, does a barrier need to be put around it? Is lettering on the floor saying ‘do not touch’ going to prevent an illiterate three year old from poking it?), how security staff are trained to talk to young audiences and what front of house staff can say if a complaint are received around children being noisy. These conversations are difficult and require continuous discussions and re-evaluation amongst teams of staff. It can be tricky to manage different individual’s opinions as well as being time consuming to negotiate and reach a realistic outcome.
- They require a significant financial investment to be made in regards to both start-up and maintenance costs.
The second key point that I found myself dwelling over was in regards to the children’s clay and paint studio. How does having a clay and paint studio within an art gallery differ from having a clay and painting studio within an art classroom at a school? Does it matter if there is no difference? As a result of lack of time and money in many public primary schools, children infrequently have the opportunity to freely play with creative materials at school. Does this then put the responsibility on art galleries to provide studio-based activities? Is this making best use of the unique affordances of the gallery environment?
All of the above are complex considerations in need of negotiation when constructing a children’s programme, none of which have clearly defined answers. In addition to the Children’s Wing, I was extremely impressed with the Louisiana. The setting and layout of the museum reminded me a lot of the amazing MONA in Hobart, Australia. When visiting I also highly recommend climbing and sitting on top of the reconstruction of Poul Gernes’s ‘Pyramid’ (pictured above).
NB: The term ‘creative laboratories’ is one that I have constructed and defined within the context of my PhD research and is not a term necessarily used by the institutions discussed. Within the context of my research, creative laboratories are a place where people can go to creatively explore, experiment and freely play with ideas and materials in large variety of ways. The Reggio Emilia approach also often utilises the metaphor of the kindergarten as a laboratory. An expansion of this idea can be found in a recent blog post I wrote for the American website Art Museum Teaching.