Blog Archives

Coloursaurus

There have been some fantastic new species dreamed up by visitors to Walking with Beasts, including this Coloursaurus! We’ve enjoyed them and hope you do too!

Via Flickr:
Name of researcher: Tyler
Food source: bones
Height: 10m
Notes on behaviour: wild

Don’t forget – you can add your own creations to our My Herbert Flickr group: www.flickr.com/groups/theherbert/

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Me and my friend Half Tooth!

Summer has arrived with an almighty heat wave, but the rising temperatures are not stopping us from working away to get everything ready for what should be a fun, and rather silly summer around the museum.

For me, that involved heading into schools across Coventry again for another assembly, this time focusing on our Walking with Beasts exhibition from the BBC. I’m really excited about this exhibition; it’s been lots of fun researching for the assembly so now the exhibition is open I can make sense of the rather long names associated with some of the animals featured in there (I mean Australopithecus…really???).

As part of this assembly I was kindly offered some objects from the BBC, that were used in filming, to take into the schools with me to show the pupils. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, so when 2 men walked into the office carrying the head of a Sabre Tooth Cat and a Gastornis I was a little taken aback. They were so much bigger than I had expected, but look absolutely incredible. Even though I knew they were not the real thing and only made as replicas for the TV series, I still found it creepy to touch them, probably because taxidermy freaks me out, and these honestly do seem more real than some of the actual taxidermy animals we have in the museum… just don’t tell the curators I said that! Regardless of how life-like they are, we couldn’t resist having a few silly pictures taken with them around the office before they got boxed up ready to be taken with me on my travels around the city.

It also wouldn’t be summer prep time without our annual cutting up day with the family learning officer, Mel, as she gets ready for the influx of families coming in to the arts and crafts sessions during the holidays. Kitchen rolls, egg boxes and plastic bottles are being collected and lots of paper and templates have been cut to size and I think it was all worth it when we have children give us excellent results including a very snazzy Harry Potter themed castle! There will be lots more to come over the summer so keep checking what’s on everyday for you to get involved with.

Musings on the nature of things

There’s just one week to go before we start installing “Wild Worlds” the Herbert’s summer exhibition aimed at families. From last year’s “In the Big Treetop” installation we discovered that mole-hill shaped piles of MDF shapes were incredibly alluring to children. Many children just wanted to stand on top of them, or jump from one to the next, or claim them as ‘territory’. We also observed toddlers just beginning to walk would hang on to mum’s hand and walk back and forth over them again and again, seeming to love how they were irregular, yet dependable.

Lindsay, one of our learning team who has heaps of experience as an artist in early years’ settings, told us she found platforms offered something special, that there is almost a taboo on playing off the ground while indoors.

Our designers have taken these ‘floor blobs’ and put them at the core of our installation this year, and we can only wait to see how well they work.

I’ve observed a category of things (for which I don’t have a name) which seem to work especially well in creative play. These things need to be both unfamiliar and immediately understood by children. A mini-hill of layers of MDF is something quite new, but they understand what it does very rapidly. They sometimes check if the pieces come apart, or if it slides on the floor – both critical qualities to understand how safe it is – and then walk across it, stand on top as if it is a mountain, all with complete confidence.

Another example we’ve used repeatedly are wooden pebbles. We made these from light timber from packing crates, all differently shaped, but roughly the shapes and sizes of seaside pebbles. Children immediately understand what they do and don’t do, and they are collected, arranged, hidden and balanced on top of each other.

Perhaps lengths of cloth fall into this category – children can wrap themselves, build dens, create rivers or skies, but often they check for permission, possibly because different rules apply to cloth (eg curtains) at home.

These sorts of objects are dramatically neutral – they can be used to represent anything at all, and don’t exclude themselves from any sort of fictional game. Things which are more clearly themed, for example a badger hand puppet, would be far harder to include in an undersea world.

I suspect there are some interesting reflections on the wider context of a museum, the place devoted to the idea of things having meaning, but I’ll ponder on that another time.

February half term is coming!

Finally after months of preparations we are ready to open our doors to the hundreds of families we are expecting over the next few months. We have already had our first schools through the doors earlier in the week, but next week it will be the turn of our family visitors as they explore our Secret Egypt exhibition and take part in our hands-on family activities over February half term and beyond.

Egyptian ActivityMy main priority as Family Learning Officer was to provide a variety of workshops that will encourage our families to explore and engage with the themes within our Secret Egypt exhibition. This is not always as easy as it sounds as there are so many different ages, tastes and abilities to suit! This is where working as part of the Learning Team is of great benefit as all our research for the schools sessions, including many visits to other galleries and museums, has helped to positively shape the plans for the family programme.  Here I was able to identify what topics to focus on, what had the most potential to be developed into creative workshops and what would further encourage learning outside of the classroom.

I have tried to use all this new knowledge and research to work on the content for the next 20 workshops which cover all the holidays from now until June, early years sessions and the ‘bring your dad’ event day!.

 This has included:

  • Working on the content first and then with the designers on the look and layout of a family trail that encourages visits all the permanent galleries, promotes the use of our Secret Egypt family break out space (more details below) and also combines with an art and craft activity that we will then use to create a fantastic Egyptian display to show our other visitors!
  •  Ordering stacks of unusual and exciting materials, cutting up decorative papers, metals and card, working out templates and making examples, all to make sure we are all prepared for our very popular art and craft sessions.
  •  Co-ordinating the use of our Studio space so our family visitors can use it as an extra activity/break out area. Here we have designed a make-and-take activity that can be done without the need for a facilitator! So, if the activity room downstairs or the exhibition becomes too full, then there is always an area for families to go and do something.
  •  Learning about our 3000 year old Egyptian artefacts and how to use this information for family object handling sessions. Our families will get the chance to handle genuine objects and try on costume that would have been used by ancient Egyptians.

Printing off hundreds of trails, writing up marketing content and working on a timetable for our family activity facilitators has meant for a very busy 6 months. I am now really looking forward to the families coming in and being able to enjoy the benefits of a lot of hard work for such a fantastic exhibition!

We look forward to welcoming you!

Mel, Family Learning Officer
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Hue and sky

One of the joys of this job is the range of work we take on, and how it is so easy to be intensely focused on one task while your colleagues are immersed in quite different ones.  The storm and buzz of our forthcoming exhibitions All Dressed Up  and Secret Egypt have largely ignored me, which his just as well given we have Spotlight: Belsen Head fast approaching and the planning for our summer early years exhibition started to gather speed.

Spotlight: Belsen Head continues a thread of exhibitions focussed on a single powerful object, in this case a recently acquired sculpture by Raymond Mason.  We’ve asked some local artists to create responses to the piece, and I feel their approach is testament to the quality of the local arts community, that we have artists prepared to accept the challenge of this commission.  I feel pride in the way Coventry marks Holocaust Memorial Day each year, and it sometimes shocks me that I am part of that process.

Although, on the face of it, completely different, we take our summer exhibition for early years just as seriously as commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.

Over the past 8 years, we have been able to explore how a gallery can offer creative play opportunities, and to consciously experiment and push boundaries.  We’ll keep most details secret for now, but we are building on developments in 2010’s In the Big Treetop especially in the use of off-ground structures and light.  We’ve invested in more multicoloured lamps, and while the Studio was quiet over New Year, we built a test bed “Iglow” to try out lighting effects – the sense of movement feels wonderful in this clip:

Another area we are exploring is how we can make the growing field of pervasive gaming appropriate to the family and early years audiences we receive throughout the summer.  Lots of reading, then lots of trialling and, lets face it, lots of playing, to do on this one.

The office windows behind the Herbert open onto a strange landscape, particularly with the recent weather.  When I raise my eyes from my screen, I am greeted by a steel sky, grey-clad university buildings and high grey lamp posts on the ring-road.   At the front of the building we have the richer palette and sharper details of the Cathedrals, yet this wash of subtle greys offers an urban alternative to the coastal landscapes evocative of 20th century heroes such as Britten and Jarman..  

  

 

Jack
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Jack’s August blog . . .

The Big TreeTop installation for families is almost over and last week I gathered our team of facilitators around some cake to reflect on strengths and weaknesses.   One area where I feel we’ve learned a little more is in the nature of ‘Family Learning’ which for us means activities which engage the adults alongside the children. 

So in our gallery installation, adults and children playing together = good; adults as spectators = bad. 

One influence on this is seating which we place in a way that encourages participation with the children.  Last year the main seating was a giant tree-root (with a tunnel underneath) – and although it kept adults in the centre of the installation, their position meant they were looking out, rather than into the space.   This year we have some rather funky low cane seats that can be used anywhere in the space.  

We try to alter the gallery each day, so our regular visitors have a change in colours, layout and materials – and every morning the seats will be clustered around activities such as dressing up, sorting or soft toys.   But so often they are quickly moved to the walls where adults can be spectators (bad!)

Or so I thought . . .  I’ve talked to so many parents recently who have said that just having 30 minutes without having to answer endless questions is a blessed respite.  How can that be wrong?  

‘Family learning’ and ‘respite for worn-out parents’ seem to be mutually contradictory, but most of what we see in the space is so positive and there doesn’t seem to be a problem.   So far I am not sure how this spectrum of engagement amongst adults should influence our planning for next year  – I think like a lot of aspects of In the Big TreeTop, we can try to send subtle signals about how to get the best out of the space, but we won’t impose rules.    Thankfully we have plenty of time work that one out for 2011.

Jack.

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Big TreeTopping Out

View of In the Big Treetop during the final stages of installation

Most museum work is planning, but every so often I get to do the business – actually mount an exhibition.  “In the Big Treetop” is an installation for children and adults to explore together; it doesn’t have valued objects like most exhibitions, but instead has large structures which have to be strong enough to survive six weeks of lively play. 

We used cake to lure our staff into the Big TreeTop before it opened . . .

Because this is an annual fixture, the process begins with the evaluation of last year’s exhibit.  The planning started seriously in December and our technician began constructing the design in May.  Then two weeks of building and painting in the gallery and finally the public arrive. 

What happens then is the “Death of the Author” moment – all our ideas are rendered unnecessary as the public reinterprets the space and invests it with their own meanings.    

For the first time this year we have chosen not to have an area for displaying visitors’ work, which has been a coincidental mechanism for communication between visitors – so the interpretations might be different every day.   It will be an interesting chance to explore how this might impact on the sense of community that can exist amongst our regular audience. 

Enough of this seriousness . . . we have a magical gallery full of very happy children and parents and that is all that matters! 

View more photos of In the Big Treetop on our Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/theherbert/sets/72157624411047559/ 

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Matters physical, thoughtful and sensory: part 2

Construction on In the Big Treetop begins!

View of the construction of In the Big Treetop

In the Big Treetop has just come a step closer with the delivery of 33 sheets of MDF.  Now our technician Steve has the huge task of converting the 1:25 scale model into a reality that can stand everything that hundreds of children can throw at it.

We’ve also made some progress on the theoretical questions.   I am currently exploring the tension between how the installation respects the visitor by offering a carefully designed aesthetic, and how it can honour the participants in the space by letting them shape it. 

One of the special things about the Herbert is the combination of Gallery, Museum, Archives and Media.  Having been up at 5am on the May bank holiday recording the dawn chorus, Daz, our sound engineer, had the brilliant idea of using the great quadraphonic sound system in the studio . . .   So at 3.30am on Sunday I will be trudging through a nature reserve with 4 mic stands, cables, two recorders . . .   Those birds better sing!

Wednesday’s update:  On Sunday, the birds sang, the bunnies lolloped, herons rose from the mist and terns flashed bright orange as they caught the dawn sun . . .

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Matters physical, thoughtful and sensory: part 1

In the Big TreeTop is our summer exhibition for younger children and their families.   We’ve been running exhibitions like this for seven years, and it is something of a speciality, with great experience amongst staff, great expectations from our visitors and the reputation to live up to of “Family Friendly Museum of the Year“.

Today our designers Janet Vaughan and Nicola Richardson delivered a model of the installation, which looks really special.

The project is a strange combination of playfulness and utter seriousness – analysing last year’s installation in detail and trying to make every aspect a little better.   We’ve kept the scale of last year’s “Under the Big Tree” but spread the structures throughout the space. We are putting lots more into the safe area for babies and the central structure has far more playful flexibility.

The design has a clever combination of enclosed and open areas.  Some of the open spaces can become focal points for static play as well as routes for hurtling games, and there are plenty of options so if one place becomes a beautifully decorated den, it won’t interfere with other games.

 Our big influence is the “Reggio Emilia” approach to creative play which is pioneered in Italian pre-schools.  Of course we need to take account of the many differences between a gallery and a nursery, for instance we don’t have a small number of familiar children. Instead we welcome hundreds, some coming day after day, others perhaps visiting the Herbert for the first time.   Although this must have all the safety considerations of a children’s centre, we also need to meet the expectations of visitors to an award-winning art gallery of an elegant and designed space.

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