By Emily Sinclair
Museums and galleries are turning to their youngest group of art lovers in an attempt to make education a top priority in their exhibition programs.
Centuries ago, when the very notion of the art museum first emerged, it was Sir Henry Cole who saw it as a means of deterring the average person from the ‘gin mill’. By providing a more refined experience for the general population, he intended to showcase the wonder of expert craftsmanship and various narratives of history. As time has passed, however, the nature of the museum has inevitably evolved. Today, museums are cultural institutions that retain an important place within our society, as they promote above all creativity, knowledge and education. It is only in recent decades that museums have wilfully opened their doors to the youth of society, who as it turns out happen to be some of their biggest and most loyal enthusiasts.
The emphasis on education within an exhibition has long been a focus for many artistic and cultural institutions. In recent years, however, there has been an increasing trend amongst institutions to expand their demographic of traditional museum and gallery attendees to actively include children and young adults. This inevitably impacts on the types of programs produced and the distribution of museum resources allocated to various departments.
Museums throughout Australia, both regional and metropolitan, are at the forefront of progressive children’s educational exhibitions and public programs. Institutions such as the Queensland Art Gallery’s Children’s Art Centre and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art have taken the framework of museum education even further by constructing purpose built learning facilities for children to actively participate in exhibitions. These facilities enable young children to engage with the art on display, and also aids in their interpretation of the artist’s concepts and practices.
Kate Ryan, curator at the Queensland Art Gallery’s Children’s Art Centre, emphasises that in recent years there has been a distinctive shift in the art museum sector. Ryan recognises that public perceptions of museums are changing, with a stronger emphasis being placed on enriching visitors’ experiences and less on perpetuating the elitist nature of museums and galleries of the past. The Children’s Art Centre achieves this for young children and their families. Since 1998, more than one million children have participated in the gallery’s exhibitions and associated public programs. This number reflects the Gallery’s strong commitment to the continued development of educational programs, as well as its place in the local community as a destination for young children.
The Children’s Art Centre, which emerged in the 1990s as an experimental program, now produces some of the most innovative and forward thinking educational and children’s programs in contemporary art institutions today. Since the opening of the Gallery of Modern Art in 2006, the Children’s Art Centre has established dedicated exhibition spaces for children and families, as well as an annual large-scale exhibition, and a touring exhibition, which offers children in remote areas the opportunity to engage with the exhibitions off-site.
In 2010, having experienced over a decade of success with children’s programs and exhibitions, the Children’s Art Centre established a dedicated publishing program to extend the opportunities for engaging young children with visual arts to home and school environments. Such programs enable the Gallery to communicate with a more diverse demographic, and allow the Gallery to extend their exhibitions beyond the museum walls.
Similarly, the newly unveiled National Centre for Creative Learning at the re-vamped Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney emphasises the distinctive shift occurring in art museums of the twenty-first century. The new establishment is a clear advocate of the education of children in an art context, with their new multi-million dollar facilities placing the institution at the forefront of museum programming and development.
The new wing boasts workshop rooms, interactive digital media rooms and artistic development rooms, among others. Most notable, however, is their dedication to the development and production of digital resources, which are readily accessible to educators in schools throughout Australia. The digitalisation of cultural institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art provides children with the ability to engage with exhibitions and collections away from the museum and in a familiar environment, such as in the home or classroom.
However, there have been opposing arguments voiced in the arts community concerning the privilege of children’s education in a museum or gallery environment. Resident Sydney Morning Herald art writer John McDonald implied that such spaces are no more than an attempt to prove to funding bodies the dedication of the museum to youth programs and education. In his review of the National Centre for Creative Learning at the Museum of Contemporary Art, he quips with a hint of sarcasm that ‘the children even get million-dollar views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House’. While the art education of children is important, the new National Centre for Creative Learning is ultimately an attempt to break down the barriers, which to an extent remain between the physical place of the museum and the public; in this instance, this happens to involve a room with a view.
The emphasis placed on digital learning within the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new Creative Learning Department is undoubtedly immensely beneficial for children in remote school environments. It does, however, raise pertinent issues regarding the construct of the museum and its sense of permanence as a vital cultural structure within society. If the need to visit the museum or gallery to experience art is removed, there arises a greater difficulty to create an enriching museum experience. It is indeed an innovative and contemporary approach to museum education; however, the excitement of a school excursion replaced by a computer screen seems to hinder the overall educational process and understanding that arises when viewing an exhibition. It seems that time will ultimately be the judge of the success of the initiative at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Despite being steeped in a more traditional history, the Art Gallery of New South Wales holds engagement with the public as one of its core organisational values. This ultimately incorporates educational programs and opportunities for young children. The Art Gallery’s most recent exhibition, Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National, Paris offered many educational programs for children to participate in. Most notable were the ‘Children’s Trails’, where children were guided through the exhibition with information and activities, which continued beyond the gallery walls, with additional material children could complete after their visit.
An obvious commonality between these museums is the desire of art institutions to engage public audiences beyond the museum environment by attempting to connect with people in a place that is more familiar, such as the home or school ground. This shift is reflective of the changing nature of the museum as no longer a place cloaked in perceptions of elitism, but of community and educational opportunities that extend to everyday life.
Exhibitions and youth oriented programs are not particular to larger institutions, with many smaller organisations focusing on the education of young children in an artistic environment. Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation produces educational programs as a major aspect of its exhibition program, with particular importance placed on children’s programs. Since SCAF’s highly successful 2010 exhibition, Contemporary Art for Contemporary Kids, the gallery has become a must-see destination for young families in both the immediate area and surrounding Sydney suburbs.
Contemporary Art for Contemporary Kids combined the works of five established Australian and international contemporary artists, who managed to engage young children with interactive elements of their artworks. The success of this exhibition can be seen as a result of having artworks specifically targeted at children, not adults. Executive Director and Chairman of SCAF, Dr Gene Sherman AO, explained on the eve of the opening that this exhibition promoted ‘tolerance, interconnectedness, respect for others, and an understanding of other cultures’. These qualities formed the foundation for further educational activities at the Foundation in association with this particular exhibition, including artist workshops and interactive group activities for children.
SCAF’s current exhibition, After Eden, by esteemed Australian artist, Janet Laurence boasts an array of educational programs for young children, despite the fact the exhibition is not specifically targeted at such a young demographic. Over several Saturdays throughout the duration of the exhibition, the foundation has staged ‘Animal Days’ to coincide with themes of animal and environmental welfare in Laurence’s work. These ‘Animal Days’ involved young families and children being invited to bring their cats and dogs to the Goodhope Street gallery, where they learnt about the proper care of animals from the Animal Welfare League and a professional dog trainer. An additional service of free animal dental and health check-ups, and a consultation with an animal behaviour specialist was also provided to animal owners visiting the gallery space.
In addition, while promoting Yang Fudong’s 2011 No Snow Under the Broken Bridge, the Foundation held a workshop, which enabled children as young as three to engage with Chinese culture and artistic practices. Art and craft activities, group discussions, and a showing of the film and associated activities were offered, which succeeded in facilitating the children’s understanding of the artist and his practice. Such educational programs provide young children with the necessary knowledge and skills to arrive at their own interpretation of the artwork, and the overall exhibition.
Interestingly, a comparison can be drawn between art museums and advertisements by tobacco companies of the early-mid twentieth century, which aimed to appeal to younger generations. Their mentality of ‘we’ve got them for life by getting them early’ can be applied to the various children’s programs that museums have adopted in targeting younger demographics. Although this can be interpreted as a way of ensuring future patronage and continued interest in educational opportunities within museums, it can also be viewed as museums having ulterior motives when devising such programs: are museum officials genuinely interested in enriching the education of young people through art, or does their concern lie in increasing the attendance numbers in years to come? As the education of children in museums has only taken off in the last few decades, future reviews will surely shed light on the current model.
Though the education of children in a museum environment is currently in vogue, its popularity offers the impression that it has quickly become a permanent fixture of both long established and newer art museums. Despite the fact that some may question the effectiveness of digital learning in an off-site location, or the very thought of a once quiet site of contemplation and reflection now likened to an upmarket crèche, children are irrefutably an integral part of museums in the twenty-first century. Who knows? Perhaps the next insightful comments you hear in a museum will come from the cohort of six-year-olds at the other end of the gallery. Listen carefully, because they may just teach you a thing or two.
 Kate Ryan and Donna McColm, “An Overview of the Children’s Art Centre”, Queensland Art Gallery Children’s Art Centre, Queensland Art Gallery, 2011, page 3
 Ibid page 2
 Kate Ryan, ART BLOG, “Surrealism for Kids at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane”, Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art, 2011, page 1
 John McDonald, “Up with the times”, The Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax Media, Sydney, 6/4/2012, page 12
 Andrew Frost, “Bright Young Things”, The Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax Media, Sydney, 2/10/2010, page 6
 Joyce Morgan, “Contemporary Art Proves Child’s Play”, The Sydney Morning Herald, Fairfax Media, Sydney, 7/10/2010, page 5