Children Taking Over

5 December 2013

AND’s Caterina Violi, Claire Storey & John McMahon dropped by some of the London museums involved in Takeover Day this year, and were impressed by what the saw.

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(Image credit: Wallace Collection)

Established by the Children’s Commissioner for England as an annual event since 2007, Takeover Day encourages organisations that work with children and young people to allow their young charges to work alongside adults and make meaningful decisions.

The idea is to allow children and young people to experience the world of work, and to have their voices heard, and to participate in their communities; for adults to gain new perspectives about their jobs; and for the barriers between both groups to be transcended over the longer term.

Takeover Day has become a particularly notable entry in the museums calendar, with Kids In Museums leading the way by signing up over 120 museums in England to work with over 3,000 children for the 2013 installment (the figures are nearly double this for the UK as a whole).

As one might expect, a solid cohort of London’s museums took up the challenge this year, and AND’s Caterina Violi, Claire Story and John McMahon went out ‘into the field’ to explore some of the wide range of different approaches being undertaken.

The Wallace Collection’s work with pupils from a local state primary school, The Museum of London’s with an independent secondary, and The Royal Academy of Art with university students.

Wallace Collection – John McMahon

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(Image credit: Wallace Collection)

An obligation to attend a (separate, unrelated) conference for most of the day in question meant that I was on the lookout for central London museums that were to be taken over from the very moment they opened their doors that morning.

Following a tip-off from colleagues at Kids in Museums, and a bit of ringing round, I was delighted to discover that year 4 from St Vincent’s RC Primary School in Marylebone would be up, bright and breezy, to welcome early guests to The Wallace Collection.

Two children from the class were standing proudly by the reception desk to greet me, and offered their recommendations on what to see whilst I was there (the armour, or course!). One of their classmates had taken up station in the building’s entrance hall, and suggested with disarming enthusiasm that I put my bag and coat in the cloakroom (very sensible – the last thing that I wanted was to inadvertently knock a vase from a pedestal during my visit).

As I ambled through the superb collection and elegant, opulent regency interiors, other pupils from the school were also on hand to help me navigate the spaces and assist me to locate the armoury at the far end of the building. All were brimming with friendly eagerness.

At the end of my visit, I had the chance for a fascinating chat with the museum’s Education Officer Emma Bryant and School and Group Learning Co-ordinator Edwina Mileham, who explained how the already longstanding relationship with St Vincent’s had been extended and enriched through participation in Takeover Day.

We also spoke about The Wallace Collection’s 2010 exhibition Shhh! It’s a Secret, from which the relationship with Kids in Museums has been built. The learning team were offered the chance to programme a family exhibition after asking the museum if they could hang pictures at a lower level so that children could see them more easily. After finding it a challenge to identify suitable themes, the team resolved to involve children themselves and so approached St Vincent’s, their nearest state primary school.

Still, the museum’s staff were amazed by the way it all unfolded. Standing back slightly to wait and see when the children would reach their limits (and when the education team would need to step back in and take control), that point never really came, with the children playing a central role in curation, interpretation, displays, planning and marketing.

The final exhibition currently stands as The Wallace Collection’s eighth most popular temporary show of all time, which – considering that this includes a stellar array of past presentations, including ones focused upon notables ranging from the Old Masters to Damien Hirst, is no mean feat...!

Museum of London (London Wall) – Caterina Violi

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(Image credit: Museum of London)

This particular Friday afternoon was no ordinary one for the Museum of London. From the outside, business was carrying on as normal, the site gradually filling up with the first visitors venturing up the labyrinth of highwalks in the crisp morning air. Inside, the museum was buzzing with fresh energy.

As I walked through the doors, I was greeted by pupils from City of London School for Girls, who, alongside regular museum staff were doing the honours of welcoming visitors and helping them find their way around the museum. At the information desk, some were taking it in turns to announce a detailed timetable of guided tours of the museum happening that morning, entirely curated and conducted by pupils from the school.

On the far side of the foyer, another group was busy talking visitors through the features of a number of ancient objects – from the remains of a medieval monk who died a violent death aged 35, to a beautifully decorated Roman vase. The scene spoke for itself and the next announcement didn’t come as a surprise “...the Museum of London has been taken over by children! We hope you enjoy your visit!”

Nina Sprigge, Programme Manager for Primary Schools at the Museum of London, explained that, being a local school, City of London School for Girls have an established relationship with the museum.

The Take Over Day was organised in conjunction with the school’s history and archaeology after school club which has been running for the past five years on a regular basis. The museum worked closely with the school to prepare pupils for the event, with ad hoc sessions to meet the curators, learn about, discuss and research some of the topics and objects which the activities of the Take Over Day focused on. The idea here is for children to choose and explore themes that they have a genuine interest in, while doing so in a way that is rigorous and having access to some of the best resources. As Nina succinctly put it 'They learn to research but also how not to research'.

The guided tours were perhaps one of the best examples of how successful this approach had been. I tagged along the mid morning session on The Plague run by two Key Stage 2 pupils from the school.

As they introduced themselves and gradually set the scene for what was going to be a very detailed account of what the plague was, how it manifested, how it developed and how it affected the city of London as a whole, I was sure my expectations about brushing up on my (nowadays slightly rusty) knowledge would have been totally met. Their script was well researched, well crafted and confidently delivered with an engaging choice of facts and cliff hangers. While on one level, the ‘clinical’ precision with which the girls were describing the different varieties of the disease made the audience smile, it also made apparent how much they had been able to get under the skin of the topic.

But I knew my expectations were going to be exceeded, when the girls started tackling some of the questions that were raised by the audience. The confidence with which they welcomed the opportunity to pass their knowledge and their enthusiasm and generosity in offering facts and explanations were impressive. Their ability to refer to the museum’s collection and to facts, figures and explanations that they had absorbed over the course of the various sessions run by the Museum of London in conjunction with their after school club was remarkable.

This, together with everything else that was happening at Museum of London on Take Over Day, was proof that the children were truly in charge, owning the space not only on a physical level but also on a historical and conceptual one.

Royal Academy of Arts – Claire Storey

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(Image credit: Royal Academy of Arts)

In the evening, I fought my way against the tidal wave of commuters and as they headed into their weekend, I took an opposite route into an unusual evening. Students from the University of the Arts London had taken over the Royal Academy.

As I found sanctuary from the hustle of Christmas shoppers I momentarily wondered if I had the right night, politely enquiring at the information desk we were finally able to ascertain that I needed to 'go round the back'. Where, to my wonder, there was life in great abundance!

In reaction to the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, student drew inspiration from the work of sculptor Bill Woodrow, who since the 1970s has been presenting found materials in a new context often with great humour, nicely summarised in the flyer as 'preoccupied with disassembling and bringing new life and identity to everyday objects.'

As was outlined to us by Beth Schneider, The RA’s Head of Learning, and Sian Thurgood, Head of Communities & Partnerships at UAL Student’s Union, groups of students from UAL’s constituent colleges had been able to ‘pitch’ projects in response to brief for the event, with the successful seven proposals each gaining a budget to inhabit and reorient the hallowed spaces of Burlington Gardens.

It was great to see such a prestigious space let its hair down; it was filled for the night with a light, tough air of freedom. Galleries can so often be intimidating spaces if you are unfamiliar or young but this was breezily and thoroughly subverted.

Two difficulties faced by gallery are lighting and the way people circulate, focusing on an atmosphere conductive to contemplation. Well these two difficulties were met with party lights and bottle necks however the atmosphere was fun. And as people laughed, chatted and got their hands dirty making and doing, the contemplation of engaging felt a lot less passive than the familiar role often prescribed for an art audience.

There was an enthusiasm which transformed the space but also left me wanting more of the evening and asking more of it. It was hard to ignore a sense of getting the keys to the palace and - well, quite simply - having a party.

More than new life and identity brought to everyday objects, new life was brought to everyday people, with visitors, students and staff all contributing as active participants. Perhaps even more than for the students, the gallery benefited from the chance to breathe some new life into the spaces; it was enabled to really look at itself. This approach could get even more interesting over a period of time on a frequent basis: let the students do what students do and learn, and let those that teach awaken to how much they have been given in return.

Conclusion

It was clear that all of the young people that we encountered on Takeover Day had engaged with and through the respective museums on a whole new level, something which could be key to engagement later on in life.

We know that museums are, overall, one of the most common forms of cultural engagement for children and young people of school age - AND’s survey of Young Londoners, for instance, suggests that 87% of young people aged 11-15 have visited a museum in the last year, a proportion that is only exceeded by those who went to the cinema or have visited libraries. However, we also know that museums are one of the forms of cultural engagement which among young people tends to decline after the age of 16. At this point, school tends to leave a vacuum which young people are not always able to fill in again in later years when demands on their time by competing activities become more pressing.

An ethnographic study commissioned by A New Direction which will be released in the next few weeks also suggests that when it comes engaging with cultural activities, young people are often more attracted to doing, interacting, creating and co-creating rather than passively absorbing.

As it builds year on year, Takeover Day is also a great example of how young people can be engaged in not only short-term but in lasting, fundamental ways, in a manner that is not merely useful but potentially transformative to our work (not just in cultural education, but for wider thinking in the sector too). It gives young people an opportunity to get involved, get their hands dirty, learn from the experts and see behind the scenes. They get exposed to what lies underneath the surface of a collection and the work that goes into being able to talk about it and explain its value. In this sense, it can be a powerful way of changing young people’s perceptions of what museum are, making them more exciting and creating new avenues and ways to connect with them.

There’s also a strong, complementary resonance with a lot of the work to establish youth panels in the museums sector (and beyond) that was explored through the Stories of the World programme during the Cultural Olympiad. That programme brought to the fore a couple of resources that could be strongly applied for activities such as Takeover day, too – the National Youth Agency’s ‘Hear By Rights’ participatory framework, to give young people a meaningful voice in the settings that work with them, and the ‘Revisiting Collections’ methodology to allow young people, community groups and others to have a say in the interpretation and display of museum and heritage items.


Kids in Museums are always looking to extend their work around Takeover Day, so if you’re a museum or even a library or an arts organisation interested to find out more, please have a look at their website, or contact them.