Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The fine art of entertainment

I have recently been involved in the Telegraph’s Kids in Museums award. With hands-on opportunities ten-a-penny, museums are really moving with the times and research shows they are more popular than ever with families. While there’s no doubt that all six museums which made it to the shortlist this summer will provide a rich and entertaining experience for their younger visitors, what of the museum’s more grown-up cousin, the gallery?  Does this more traditional, static experience have the capacity to capture the hearts and minds of our children?

As a life-long lover of art, recently starved of my eye candy through maternal duties, I have a selfish motivation when I wonder if there is room for children to get enthusiastic about art and artefacts that aren’t all-singing-all-dancing. Admittedly, it was with my own interest at heart that I set out with my two-year-old daughter to see if simple paintings on canvas could cut the mustard.

Something cerebral, I think, will make a pleasant change from the sensory overload of soft-play areas with buffeting acoustics, or the hectic experience of the mother-and-toddler group, comparable to weathering a gale-force storm. Not so long ago, art galleries held a regular pleasure for me. But then I had children. These days, the trips are few and far between, with a need for time to heal as the memory of stressful encounters fades between visits. As luck would have it, my spontaneous decision was just in time to catch the last day of Becoming Picasso at the Courtauld Institute of Art, a favourite gallery of days gone by.

It is useful at this point to say a few words about the Courtauld Institute, to convey a few points about its standing, and my choice of destination. Part of Somerset House, it was built at the end of the 18th century to house the government office and its associated societies, and the gallery’s entrance was once the reception for the society of ‘useful learning and the polite arts’. I arrive with my daughter in an antithetical bluster of commotion as I heave the buggy up over the stone steps, worn beautifully smooth over the centuries by the feet of those learned and polite. The door opens, courtesy of the doorman.

Inside, the atmosphere is positively librarian, and that I mean in a way I used to enjoy very much, before the anxiety of turning calm to storm entered my radar. I approach a member of staff at the desk. ‘Is it possible to take a buggy into the gallery?’ I enquire in a low voice, nodding down at my daughter.  

‘Oh yes,’ replies a woman brusquely, ‘but eating is not allowed.’ She widens her eyes to the untidy snacks employed for a quiet ride. As I reach to remove the offending bag, I am already braced for the wail of complaint that emanates from my daughter. After a brief tug of war to escalating soundtrack, I loosen my grip, bend down and try reason. ‘The lady says no snacks in the gallery,’ I say ‘but when we come out, you can have them back.’ ‘I want a apple!’ she wails as she relinquishes her grip, ‘RIGHT NOW!’ 

Is it my imagination playing on my discomfort, or do the visitors tut in time to their walking sticks? By this point, I'm wondering whether to cut my loses and leave. The lady from the desk approaches to break up the fracas. ‘An apple is fine,’ she concedes helpfully, ‘but no packets.’ I smile, fleetingly,  subconsciously  accepting a message that an apple is far more aesthetically acceptable in a gallery than a bag of crisps, and lift the pushchair up another flight of steps before arriving at the lift. I hand over an apple which does the trick – for about five minutes. 

My next attempt to maintain silence in the gallery involves removing my daughter from her buggy and carrying her around for a guided tour of the exhibition.  We stop at Picasso’s Dwarf Dancer. ‘Look at this stern lady,’ I say, ‘How do you think she’s feeling?’ My daughter studies the woman’s face for a moment. ‘Cross’, she says. I try something crafty, perhaps not in the best parenting technique. ‘That’s right, cross. Do you think she heard you crying?’ My daughter freezes for a moment, then covers her face with her hands and turns into my shoulder. We continue in silence with my daughter peeping wide-eyed through her hands to see who might be looking at her now, and finds there are plenty more faces to play with. She interprets Picasso’s Child with a dove as ‘Sad. I think she wants her mummy.’ And Casagemas in his coffin prompts ‘Oh – there is blue in his mouth! He must get the paint off.’ We talk about the people in the paintings, wonder how they’re feeling (‘He’s feeling sleepy’ of the deceased Casagemas), who they are and what they’re doing (‘A mummy with a baby, and the little boy is eating an apple like me’ of The Mother), and to my delight she is happily viewing the exhibition while commenting like a pro. After a sticky start, this visit begins to feel like a triumph.

There are several excellent and under-reported schemes in Britain’s museums and galleries which aim to foster an interest in art among children. Research shows that by engaging with and interpreting visual art from an early age, children are encouraged to exercise the right side of the brain - the side that is widely neglected by all other than left-handers. Looking at art is a richly educational and painless way to encourage children to look carefully, to think about what they see, to put people, places, religion and times into a context, and to interpret emotions – all of which are skills in the much mooted ‘transferable’ category.

The Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts funds some very successful programmes to make the arts accessible to children from all backgrounds. 

“Every child, whatever his or her circumstances, should have the chance to experience the artistic excellence of our cultural heritage, the very best of dance, theatre, opera, and music, our museums and galleries, art and literature”, reads the Foundation’s mission statement. Among the schemes, Nottingham Contemporary runs educational programmes with school children of all ages. In one exercise, five-year-olds are paired with ten-year-olds and must each choose and describe one work of art in the gallery of abstract work to describe to the other. Blind-folded, the child must recall and interpret the image they have seen, in a way their partner might understand. It makes for fascinating viewing. Even very young children can attribute emotions to a picture, express what strikes a chord with them, just as my own two-year-old had shown me. 

Compared to a strictly adult experience browsing a gallery, my trip to the Courtauld was not ideal. But no sooner was I there, than I realised my motive was misplaced. Next time, I’ll go with a less ambitious agenda, with a view to exposing my daughter to some paintings she may enjoy interpreting, and be satisfied to enjoy a few along the way.

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