Louisa Penfold is a children’s curator currently undertaking a PhD in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Tate (United Kingdom).
Art museums have not traditionally been sites for children’s creative experimentation and play but rather understood as places of collection and display. However, the past two decades have seen young audiences become an increasingly important audience for art museums around the world with many institutions developing new spaces and practices towards children. The philosopher and founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy Loris Malaguzzi once stated ‘children learn most readily and easily in a laboratory-type environment where they can experiment, enjoy and find out things for themselves.’ If this notion is true, how does the idea of the art museum as a creative laboratory reaffirm or challenge previous curatorial, artistic and pedagogical notions?
The art museum as creative laboratory
An artist has their studio, a cook has their kitchen, a scientist has their laboratory yet there are very few places in their communities where young children can go to creatively explore, experiment and freely play with ideas and materials. A creative laboratory could be anywhere in a neighborhood — a makerspace as part of a community centre, a tinkering studio in a science centre, a fab lab within a children’s museum, a woodwork area in a secondary school or a digital learning space in a library. Many of these ‘laboratory’ spaces and practices have been and are being developed by interdisciplinary teams within cultural institutions, often in partnership with community groups and university research centres. However, art museums can make a very distinctive contribution. Art museums can draw upon the processes of artists and their curatorial practices to establish a uniquely creative social and spatial environment for the co-construction of art and culture between artists, curators, children, and their parents.
The crucial quality of such environments is the presence of what Simon Nicholson once termed ‘loose parts’, these being open-ended materials such as blocks, clay, paint or design software that can be manipulated, adapted and transformed in a large variety of ways. This allows for deep, creative experimentation, questioning, explorative play and discovery-based learning. When such materials are presented in a curated creative environment where meticulous consideration has been given to their selection and presentation, combined with additional equipment and tools to assist experimentation of materials, vast and complex possibilities for exploring artistic phenomena are produced. These environments can also stimulate and support children to develop and express new creative processes and understandings of art and culture. But it is not just a matter of making materials available in a space, these need to be accompanied by artists, educators and curators who are experienced in facilitating young children’s creative play and experimentation. When they engage in careful and systematic observation and critical reflection, they can modify the spatial and social properties of the environment in response to children’s curiosities and discoveries.
The notion of art museums as creative laboratories within their community is built upon the premise that museums are not just for the transmission of culture but additionally a site for the construction of cultural knowledge and shared values. This requires a dialogic and collaborative process between artists, curators, children, their parents and the material environment. The understanding that art museums can also be places for cultural production offers an additional form of audience experience to object-centred and interpretation-based models in the gallery. Of course, transmission-based modes of cultural and artistic production should not be dismissed but rather this needs to be balanced with opportunities for individual and collaborative production of art. Child-centred practice in art museums fundamentally values children as co-creators of art and culture now, as opposed to seeing a value solely investing in the future development of children as adult museum visitors.
My interest in child-centred museum practice
I was first introduced to the interconnected ideas of child-centred practice, creative learning through play, and immersive environment design whilst working as a children’s curator at the Ipswich Art Gallery in Queensland, Australia. During this time I worked, as part of a team of highly passionate, intelligent, and creative artists, curators, industrial designers, researchers and creative practitioners, on the development of the children’s program. Collectively we were interested in exploring how the understanding of children as unique, complex, powerful, and creative beings  could intersect with new artistic and curatorial practices to construct immersive creative environments that deeply valued children’s artistry and creativity alongside artists.
Through my work in Australia, I continuously found myself asking: how can we construct a form of art museum practice that aligns with the notion of the ‘creative laboratory’ for children? What does it mean to children to experience these environments? In 2013, the children’s team at the Ipswich Art Gallery started to explore the complex concepts, theories and outcomes of these questions through a formal research project.
I first met Dr. Emily Pringle, the Head of Learning Practice & Research at Tate at a conference in January 2014. We were both very interested in the concept, challenges and possibilities of child-centred practice and its possible intersections with artistic and curatorial practice in art museums. After a series of conversations I made the decision to relocate to England in September 2015 to undertake my PhD under Dr. Pat Thomson at the Centre for Research in Arts, Creativity and Literacies in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham. The research project is connected to the Tate Learning Research Centre where Dr. Pringle is my co-supervisor. The focus of my PhD is on the construction of child-centred practice in early years (2-4 years) environments in art museums. My research asks:
- What are the key conceptual, spatial, and social qualities of these environments?
- What does it mean to children to experience them?
- How can children’s experiences be used to inform the future construction of environments within the unique practice context?
My goal is to develop a process-led, critical and reflective heuristic thinking tool that can be used to support conversations between artists, curators, children and parents engaged in developing children’s creative environments. The research will draw on early year’s intra-active pedagogical theory  and social constructivism  to generate deeper understandings of children’s experiences with human (peers, parents, artists and educators) and non-human aspects (materials, architectural space and curatorial discourse) of curated immersive environments.
Pedagogical documentation, where young children’s learning and theory building is collected using predominantly visual research collection methods such as photography, film and field notes, will be used to guide practitioner learning and reflection during and after the program is presented . This documentation will seek to make young children’s learning more visible within institutional conversations. The reflection will be used to feed into future curatorial, artistic and pedagogic practice and have the ability to be adapted to the unique gallery contexts in which the practice is occurring. Critical reflection aims to give insights into ‘curation’ of early year’s immersive gallery environment design in regards to the intersection of curatorial, artistic and pedagogic practices. The project thus extends the notion of the art museum as a creative laboratory to the researching, questioning, experimentation and critical reflection of artists and curator’s shared practice.
My inquiry consists of four action research cycles. Each one develops, challenges and reflects on the construction of the reflective heuristic thinking tool. The second phase of the project begins in September this year and the first draft of the critically reflective framework will be presented to the education teams involved in the study late in 2017. After this, I hope to take what we have learnt to the wider art museum community.
By developing an approach that values experiential learning, discovery-based play and critical practitioner reflection, my research will support the construction of more dialogic and collaborative conversations between art museums, artists and the wider community. Through the PhD I will generate new findings on the practices that lead to meaningful experiences for young children in art museums, currently under-researched and under-theorised.
Have you developed children’s creative environments around the ideas of child-centred practice, experimentation, and creative play? How does this reaffirm or challenge previous curatorial, artistic and pedagogical notions within an art museum context?
Please share your comments, experiences, challenges, and reflections.
- Nicholson, S 1971. How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, p.30-34.
- James, A., Jenks, C., & Prout, A. (1998). Theorizing childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing an intra-active pedagogy, Oxon: Routledge.
- Vygotsky, L 1930. Mind in society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Reggio Children & Harvard Project Zero. (2005). Making learning visible: Children as individual and group learners. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children publications.