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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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Ruairi’s Work Experience Blog

Today we have a guest post from Ruairi, a student who has just completed his work experience with us.

Today has been my first day at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum for my work experience. Although I haven’t actually been involved in any sort of work related tasks, it has been, all in all an interesting day. I have had a guided tour around the museum in and around the site meeting the staff and memorizing the locations in which I will be working in the future. I was shown the various exhibits around the museum as well, for instance the Elements exhibition which had some very interesting exhibits like the temperature panels which, as the name suggests, projects temperatures from certain environments around the world such as the Arctic and tropical rainforests.

Today I have been doing varied work. For instance, in the first half of the day, I was painting a play area for children in the Studio. And in the second half of the day I was photographing historical artefacts for the Herbert website. But it was raining outside so I had to put the camera in my bag and at the end of the day, I forgot to take it out! So I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was holding some very expensive equipment on the way home!         

On Wednesday, I was continuing painting in the studio. Which was nice because I saw the progress that was being made inside it. The paint colour was supposed to be brown but it looked a lot more like a pinky sort of colour.           

On Thursday morning I was helping out in a presentation to a primary school. It was about the book “Why?” by Nikolai Popov. Which is about the pointlessness of war…. Which is an odd topic to be discussing with primary school students but they handled the topic quite well and they looked like they enjoyed themselves.

On Friday morning I was helping out in the archives (or the History Centre). I was mainly tasked with finding documents underground and handing them to the people looking for them. But the most interesting thing was seeing a letter written by Anne Boleyn to the Lord Mayor of Coventry and another letter written by Queen Elizabeth the first to the Lord Mayor of Coventry regarding Mary Queen of Scots which had been amazingly well-kept.  And that afternoon I was doing odd jobs for the Front of House receptionist: putting posters up, taking posters down, restocking shelves, etc. which wasn’t as boring as it sounds, actually.
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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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