x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Young at art: children and museums

The Guggenheim is just one of a number of museums encouraging children to explore the creative realm.

Allowing children to interact with and ask questions about art can help improve their critical thinking and literary skills.
Allowing children to interact with and ask questions about art can help improve their critical thinking and literary skills.

When the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi opens to the public in 2013, it will count on children being part of the stampede through the doors. As both the audiences and artists of the future, children are an important focus for museums. And the benefits work both ways: research has shown that exposure to art and creating art can enhance children's academic performance. When the Guggenheim opens, not only will people be able to view an amazing art collection, they will be able to tap into its vast educational resources. This Saturday, as part of the current exhibition The Guggenheim: The Making of a Museum in Gallery One at the Emirates Palace, a panel of educationalists will seek the opinions of teachers, artists and academics to identify how the museum can best work with local schools.

The Guggenheim has long-established educational outreach programmes involving schoolchildren, parents, low-income families and young adults. Kim Kanatani, who will moderate the discussions at Saturday's forum and workshop, is the director of education at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York and co-ordinates the education programmes of all the Guggenheim institutions. It's no small task considering that the Guggenheim and its network of museums receive nearly three million visitors every year. "We don't want to presume that what we have developed in the Guggenheim New York will have relevance in Abu Dhabi. We will ask questions, raise issues, share ideas, listen to and learn from the feedback of the audience and that of the panel," Kanatani says.

So what sort of programmes might we hope to see in Abu Dhabi post-2013? One of the most popular, which Kanatani describes as "a key programme of the institution", is Learning Through Art. A teaching artist visits a school once a week for an hour and a half and, together with the school's art teachers, works with a grade level over the course of a year. As Sharon Vatsky, the associate director for School and Family Programs at the Guggenheim Museum, says: "The teacher in charge of the curriculum at the school comes up with an 'essential question' that the class will explore throughout the year. The teaching artist then brings their expertise and together they look at - and create - art, building up to a final project at the end of the year."

At the end of the programme, during which the children will have visited the Guggenheim several times, their artwork is exhibited at the museum. "This exhibition is designed and mounted by the same team that hangs the Picassos, so it's all done very professionally," says Vatsky. Around 142,000 students have participated in the programme, which is in its 40th year. In 2007, the Guggenheim announced the result of a three-year-long study funded by the US Department of Education, which stated there were "strong correlations between students' participation in Learning Through Art and improved critical thinking and literacy skills".

Two other studies carried out in 1999 (Learning in and Through the Arts: Curriculum Implications, Burton, Horowitz and Abeles; and Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education: Summary Evaluation, Catterall and Waldorf) indicated that not only did children who were exposed to a variety of arts over a period of time outscore those who were not in terms of their creative-thinking skills, confidence, ability to collaborate and their teachers' perceptions of their general competencies, but that their test results in reading and maths were higher.

In June this year, the Guggenheim will reveal the findings of a second study, also funded by the Department of Education, which examines whether a regular arts education programme enhances a student's problem-solving abilities. Underpinning the success of Learning Through Art is the inquiry-based method of teaching developed by museum educators. "It starts with a conversation," says Vatsky. "What do they notice about the work? What do they see here? What pops out? It is best if the educator knows about the work? Then, when questions come up, they know what to say and where to tuck in information. This is the way we learn; when we are genuinely interested. One of the keys to this form of teaching is that it doesn't presume a right or wrong answer. It is more about helping a child understand a process and trust their own reactions to art."

At one of the workshops the Guggenheim runs in New York, parents are taught this methodology to use with their children. As Kanatani says: "Why keep this as the best-kept secret among professionals?" The Guggenheim also provides inquiry-method training courses for teachers. A book has just been published (Looking at Art in the Classroom: Art Investigations from the Guggenheim by Rebecca Shulman Herz, a senior educator at the Guggenheim New York) that explains the theory behind it, suggests techniques for teachers and contains colour plates by professional artists and example investigation plans.

Shulman Herz hopes to introduce teachers from other disciplines to this practice. "Social studies teachers can also look at art. Science teachers, too. There are a number of artists making artistic works exploring ideas that relate to the science curriculum. For example, Kiki Smith has produced lots of works around the human body. There will always be something in a work of art that kids will be interested in, excited about or find a connection with." Art is also a particularly accessible medium for children to use to convey ideas, she suggests. "The children can all reference the same thing. There is no decoding or understanding difficulty with vocabulary."

George Robinson, who will sit on the panel at Saturday's forum, is the superintendent of the American Community School in Abu Dhabi. A teacher with more than 40 years' experience, seven of which have been in Abu Dhabi, Robinson is a keen supporter of exposing children to arts education and inquiry-based learning. "The one thing that holds back students as far as their achievement is concerned is a lack of out-of-the-box thinking that people bring to problem-solving. Exposure to art really does enhance that. There is a tremendous amount of carry-over, which is important in non-routine problem-solving. Children learn to apply real-world solutions to real-world problems, not just repeat what they have been taught."

The director general of Sharjah Museums, Manal Ataya, is already ensuring that education is central to the mission of all 18 of the museums under her purview. "We need informal learning environments outside regular school learning; a place to learn and have fun doing it. This is especially important where you have schools which still have a heavy emphasis on memorisation and rote learning without interacting with things. At the museums you interact and engage all the senses."

As well as having family workshops in the museums, Ataya is ensuring they build up strong links with schools and provide workshops tailored to the schools' needs. "We have a copy of the curriculum and use it to tie in with our collections as much as possible so that schools will see the benefits of coming." The Sharjah Museums website provides downloads for teachers and parents including glossaries and activity sheets.

When the museums on Saadiyat Island open, educational programmes will be at the forefront. Rita Aoun-Abdo, the director of the Cultural Department of TDIC, explains: "Education is at the core of everything we are doing with the museums. This is first of all an educational project. The child of today will be the public visiting the museums in the future. Children are the best ambassadors for the arts."

In the meantime, TDIC's exhibitions at Gallery One in the Emirates Palace have provided an education room for workshops, and TDIC is working closely with the Abu Dhabi Education Council to reach out to schools and universities. "Every time we have an exhibition we invite teachers for a session. The first guided tours are done with teachers. The curators take them on a private tour for two hours and follow this up with a brainstorming session," says Aoun-Abdo.

TDIC is also keen to create spaces that children and their families want to visit. Out go the hushed shrines to art and in come vibrant and engaging public spaces. Aoun-Abdo is clearly excited about this opportunity to build 21st-century museums that will reflect the values and needs of a 21st-century society. "The museums will be a place to chat with friends, to eat, to listen to music, to dance. There won't be this barrier between art and people. It becomes a normal place." When the Louvre Abu Dhabi opens in 2013, it will house a children's museum dedicated to, and for the benefit of, children.

Parents have a key role in encouraging children to visit museums. In a study for the National Gallery of Art in the US, the evaluators Randi Korn and Associates discovered that students' attitudes towards art were heavily influenced by family and demographic characteristics rather than a school museum programme, which means that it is up to us to get our children involved. As Kanatani says: "We want to build bridges between the audience, art and the artist, to create a vibrant progressive town square. Our focal point is to enable visitors to have art come alive."

? The Guggenheim: The Making of a Museum runs until February 4 at Gallery One at the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi. For more information on the Guggenheim exhibition and workshops, visit www.artsabudhabi.ae or call 02 690 8207. For information about Sharjah Museums and their exhibitions, visit www.sharjahmuseums.ae. For more information on the Learning Through Art Program visit www.learningthroughart.org.