Some people go to London for Big Ben, or to see the Queen, or to attend a Shakespearean play. I went to London for the babies! Thanks to a generous grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation, I was able to take a research trip to the United Kingdom a few weeks ago to investigate what museums there are doing for children ages 0-2.
More than a year ago, I stumbled across the CultureBabies blog, which highlighted the great work focused on babies happening in museums in Manchester and London. While many museums in the US offer a variety of programs and classes for toddlers and preschoolers, classes actually focused on babies seem to be harder to come by. I knew I had to see what was happening in the UK in person. (And let’s face it, I’d never refuse a trip across the pond!)
I started off in Manchester, where I visited both the Manchester Museum and the Manchester Art Gallery. These two institutions, along with the Whitworth Art Gallery (which is temporarily closed for renovation), have created a suite of programs that focus solely on babies who haven’t started walking. So we’re talking about really young children—the children that most people probably think don’t get much out of a visit to the museum. But what a mistake to think that!
Both the Manchester Museum and the Manchester Art Gallery focus on sensory play as a way for caregivers to interact with their babies, and for babies to explore their world. Educators at each institution were inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, an educational approach which champions the value of allowing children to direct their own learning, to learn through their senses, and to learn with one another. The Reggio Emilia approach also puts an emphasis on the importance of environment, and calls for early childhood classrooms to be filled with natural light, beautiful real-world materials, and to have open community spaces where children interact with one another.
The Manchester museums have translated Reggio Emilia principles into a museum setting by transforming exhibit and studio spaces into beautiful, engaging environments filled with things babies can touch, smell, taste, see, and hear. At the art gallery, an artist takes inspiration from an exhibition on display, and then creates a temporary installation for the babies in the studio. The sessions I observed focused on the work of artist Ryan Gander, and the Baby Art Club session was an exploration of traditional childhood play like making forts, playing peek-a-boo, building with blocks, and playing in the kitchen. Babies were knocking over cardboard boxes, burrowing into mounds of fabric, playing in a bowl of flour, and clanging metal spoons together. There were shrieks of delight, lots of happy babbling, and adults and children giving themselves completely over to enjoying play.
At the Manchester Museum, the Baby Explorers session begins with an interactive story-song time in which caregivers cuddle, sing to and bounce their babies as a teaching artist introduces the theme of the class and the gallery connection. I observed a class focused on ancient cultures, so the singing time included songs about a mummy and a camel. Babies and adults then had time to explore sensory “islands” that educators had set up in the children’s exhibit area—a sound station with musical instruments, a texture area with lots of natural materials, a metal area with shiny objects, and a light box with sparkly, translucent materials. Images of objects in the Museum’s collection or actual objects in protective boxes were scattered throughout the entire area, allowing babies to investigate ancient cultures in an age-appropriate way.
I was struck in both sessions by how ordinary objects became things of beauty. In the metal sensory play area at the Manchester Museum, metal bowls, spoons, whisks, and kitchen containers were transformed from utilitarian utensils into light, reflection, and shine. I observed one mother shining a flashlight through a metal object, and watched as her baby focused on the light and reached for the object as the light reflected around her. The next minute, the baby was waving a whisk through the air, experimenting with its weight and feel.
I saw tremendous value in both programs for adults and babies. For the adults, these classes seem to give them permission to leave behind all the usual tasks that build up in a day, and allow them to simply enjoy being with their babies. The adult-child interactions I observed as an on-looker were definitely sweet, but even more importantly, were contributing to positive social-emotional growth and language development for the children. Caregivers also leave these sessions with ideas for how to use everyday materials at home as playthings, learning that items as simple as a wooden spoon and a bowl of flour can provide endless entertainment and valuable open-ended learning opportunities for babies.
But perhaps the greatest outcome of these baby classes from a museum educator point of view, is that the families create strong relationships with the museums and see them as valuable partners in the journey of raising a child. At the Manchester Museum, one little girl has been attending the Baby Explorers class for the past few months with her foster mother. This month, she attended for the first time with her new adoptive parents. It was truly beautiful to see this little girl so confident in her surroundings, sure of herself as she crawled from one space to another, even as she adjusts to a new family and home life. The adoptive parents too were warmly welcomed into the museum family and appreciated the observations museum educators were able to share about their new daughter.
I came back to the DMA inspired and ready to try new ways of playing and learning with babies in our own galleries. We launched the Art Babies class for children under 2 years old here at the Museum in January, and the class has been a fun educational journey for me personally as we experiment with how to best serve our very youngest visitors. Over the coming months, I hope to incorporate some of the ideas and strategies I gathered from our colleagues across the way. Stay tuned for our own version of the British (baby) invasion!
Manager of Early Learning Programs
A calligram is a word or phrase in which the design of the text is arranged to create a visual image that expresses the meaning of the words. For example, the below piece on the right (by Low-Commitment Projects) integrates words that describe a flamingo (leg, long neck, pink) into a recognizable shape that mimics the bird.
Similarly, concrete poetry, an experimental literary style that gained prominence in the 1950s, also heavily relies on the aesthetics and visual design of the words used in a piece of writing to impart overall meaning to the work. In this respect, language is image, and the physical material from which the poem or text is made is just as vital to the meaning of the work as the words that are chosen. The poem becomes an object, and the poet an artist.
During their first DMA visit of the new school year, our Booker T. Washington Learning Lab students investigated the concepts of calligrams and concrete poetry. As senior visual art students, they are understandably comfortable expressing themselves through purely visual means. But with this exercise, we wanted to challenge the students to expand their avenues of communication, and explore this hybrid visual/literary method as an alternative way to express themselves and provide insight into their personal and artistic interests.
The calligrams the students created were quiet varied, taking the shapes of animals, pop culture icons, people, and even geometric and natural forms. Getting to know the students through this unique introduction helped us as educators gain insight into their artistic and personal modes of expression, and (we hope) provided them with useful self-reflection as well. We’ll be working with these students all year long as part of our Learning Lab class partnership, so stay tuned for more exciting things to come from this group of creatives!
This week artists Lesli Robertson and Natalie Macellaio have been on hand in C3 installing The Mother Load Project, an interactive piece which hopes to start a dialogue with visitors about the balance of nurturing in one’s life. The collaborative project began as a way to engage with women who lead the creative life of an artist while also being a mother. As part of the project, Robertson and Macellaio are collecting fingerprints from artists and their children, recording experiences via written word and audio interviews, and documenting the ongoing process through their interactive website.
Visit C3 tonight from 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm to explore the work and speak with Robertson and Macellaio. Their piece will be on view from September 19, 2014 – March 31, 2015.
C3 Gallery Coordinator
Each September, we welcome eight new colleagues to the Museum: our wonderful and oh-so-talented McDermott Interns. Three of them will be blogging here with us for the year, so we must do proper introductions. Here’s a little bit about each of these fresh new faces:
McDermott Graduate Intern for Gallery and Community Teaching
Liz joins us from Massachusetts, where she recently earned her MA in Art History from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Liz will be working with docents, K-12 tours, and our Go van Gogh program.
Which DMA artwork describes you best and why?
First of all, I studied American art in graduate school and I especially love Edward Hopper’s paintings. In addition, I grew up in Maine, about 20 minutes away from the lighthouse that Hopper depicts. This painting reminds me of visiting the Two Lights lighthouse and the nearby Lobster Shack with my family in the summer!
McDermott Intern for Family and Access Teaching
Jennifer is a Dallas native who recently earned her BA in Studio Art with a Painting Concentration from the University of Rochester in New York. Jennifer will be assisting with our programs for early learners, families, and access audiences.
Which DMA artwork describes you best and why?
I was born and raised in Dallas, so I have a special fondness for the big, blue Texas sky (and depictions of it) to the extent that the fall semester of my junior year in college I turned in exclusively sky-themed projects for all my drawing and painting assignments. Looking North even calls to mind how I left Texas for four years to attend the University of Rochester in upstate New York. I’m happy to be home again, though!
One extra fun little connection: this painting can be found in the Mayer Library. I volunteered at my neighborhood library throughout high school, so I share the feeling of being at home among books.
McDermott Intern for Visitor Engagement
Eliel joins us from the UK, where he completed his BA in Fine Art at the University of the Creative Arts, Farnham, Surrey. Eliel will be working in C3 and assisting with our community partnerships.
Which DMA artwork describes you best and why?
Nic Nicosia’s photograph titled Youth best encapsulates how I have been feeling for the past year. The scene depicts three youngsters having the time of their lives. Youth speaks of the beauty of being free, young and somehow unafraid, not necessarily because those things are tangible realities but more because they are concepts that go beyond truth and exist within the parameters of utopian experience and imagination.
I like to think that the characters are riding up a gallery of an art museum. I somehow always end up referencing the scene in Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962) where Jules, Jim and Catherine daringly run down a bridge, a scene that was later re-interpreted in The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertulocci, 2003) where the three main characters run up a gallery of the Louvre in Paris. Both the films and Nicosia’s photograph attempt to portray what it might mean to be young: a mixture of love, faith, passion and sometimes reckless attitude. If you add art to the picture you probably end up with me!
We’re so excited to work with our new colleagues this year. The next time you catch them on the blog or in person, be sure to say hello!
Originally posted on Dallas Museum of Art Uncrated:
There are many reasons I enjoy working with our Access Programs here at the DMA, but one of the big ones is the chance to form relationships—relationships with participants and, in turn, their relationship with works of art in our galleries. The Meaningful Moments program for visitors with Alzheimer’s disease and their care partner (usually a spouse or family member) creates opportunities for people to have transformative experiences with works of art and with one another. I feel lucky to be a part of this each month. As I have gotten to know the participants over the years and spent time with them each month, I am reminded of the importance to live in the moment and to cherish each day that we get to spend with our loved ones. The Meaningful Moments…
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Imagine a school where you could explore a pond during science class, visit the symphony for music class, and look closely at a painting by Monet in art class! Real-world lessons are powerful at any age, but are especially important for the preschool crowd. We don’t have a pond or a symphony here at the DMA, but we can connect preschoolers with art masterpieces from all over the world.
The Arturo’s Preschool program is a free class for preschool, homeschool, and day care groups serving children ages three to five. In the class, we look closely at paintings, sculpture and other objects; read a picture book; and try out games and movement activities in the galleries. Then with our imaginations ready to create, we go to the art studio where children engage in process-oriented, open-ended art projects. Each month’s gallery discussion and art projects focus on a new theme, covering everything from the dance-inspired paintings of Edgar Degas to intricately sewn textiles from Africa.
Reservations for the 2014-2015 school year are now being accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. For information on how to book your preschool class, please click here.
Manager of Early Learning Programs
In January 2014, the Center for Creative Connections (C3) launched a series of activities which take place at a large table in our gallery space. Each activity is related to a work of art in the C3 Gallery and offers resources to assist in visitors’ creative process.
- The Portrait Drawing activity, which focuses on two portrait paintings by William Henry Huddle (Old Slave and Self Portrait), includes mirrors for self-portraiture and facial proportion handouts.
- The Hybrid Drawing with Light Boxes activity, which focuses on The Minotaur by Marcel Dzama, includes four large light boxes and printouts of works of art from the Museum’s collection so that visitors can combine human and animal figures to draw a hybrid creature.
- The Patterns with Felt Triangles activity, which focuses on Starry Crown by John Biggers, includes 9×12 inch black felt backgrounds and a colorful assortment of small felt triangles that visitors can use to create patterns similar to those represented in the painting.
After each of the three activities had a one month trial period, we felt certain that they were successful, but wanted to learn more about why and how these activities were successful. As art educators, we know intrinsically that experiences with art make a difference in people’s lives. Yet, when we are asked to prove this it can seem an unattainable task. Proving the importance of art education is perhaps made even more daunting in an informal learning environment where visitors come for various reasons, but generally not to be quizzed about their experiences with art. So, we sought advice from our evaluator to determine goals, indicators, and potential interview questions for each activity and immediately set to the task of measuring the immeasurable. Since April, we have observed and interviewed participants at the gallery table each Saturday from 1:30 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. During that two and a half hour block of time we have found the following averages:
- Portrait Drawing– on average 23, adults and 18 children participated; visitors spent about 13.8 minutes drawing with times ranging from 1 – 30 minutes.
- Hybrid Drawing – on average 27 adults and 36 children participated; visitors spent about 10 minutes drawing with a time range of 1 – 50 minutes.
- Patterns– on average 11 adults and 9 children participated; visitors spent about 7 minutes creating patterns with a range of 1 – 33 minutes.
Though these averages tell us a lot about how much time people spend and how many people engage in our activities, the most interesting aspect of this evaluation has been hearing our visitors’ feedback and seeing the images they post of their work on social media.
“Well, it’s like… it’s fun. Like drawing before was so serious and it had to be perfect, cause you were doing it for a grade. But this is just for enjoyment.”
“I’m guessing this was made for children? It’s fun and different and I didn’t expect to see this here. Yeah, it’s like that spark of creativity, kind of… childlike. I didn’t think I’d spend as much time or get into it like I did.”
“People think patterns have to be rigid, like red, yellow, blue and then repeat, but by playing with this you can be more creative.”
“This is more interactive than other galleries. [In] the other galleries you’re just looking, but here you get to do something.”
“I like to do the activity because it gets the kids interested in art, and if I do it, they’ll probably want to try it too.”
“It’s nice to make everyone focus. I would have never gotten him [points to husband] to do this at home.”
Through this evaluation we have come to better understand our visitors’ habits and motivations. For example, we found that most visitors do not read instructions. If the instructions are read it is only the main text at the top of the document that catches a visitor’s eye. This could be because these activities tend to attract visitors who prefer some amount of active doing or making rather than passive looking. Furthermore, visitors will spend more time participating in activities that provide seating and social interaction. Regarding motivations, we found that visitors who participate in these activities are likely to have some underlying interest in the media or subject matter presented.
As we move forward and continue to develop activities for the gallery table we will take these lessons into consideration. We will make our instructions more concise, we will offer activities that involve a social component, and we’ll branch out to include a variety of media so as to appeal to visitors who are interested in diverse artistic processes.
C3 Gallery Coordinator