thinking research at schools day, tate modern

We weren’t the only ones interested in what the children and teachers made of the event

On Thursday 16th June, Becky Parry and I (Pat) went to the opening of the new Tate Modern extension. The entire gallery was closed to the general public and the only visitors were 3000 school students. They’d come from all over the country, many nominated by the regional contemporary art galleries that are part of the Tate Plus Network. The students were of all ages and stages – there were lots of very young children – and included special schools, and schools that served communities struggling to get by in austerity Britain.

It is very unusual for a gallery to give itself over to children. The new Director of TM, Frances Morris, told Emily Pringle and I about a gallery in Barcelona which opens in the morning, every weekday, for schools, and the public is admitted at lunchtime. While this won’t be possible at TM, it is nevertheless clear that the experience of ‘the children’s TM’ has given everyone at the gallery something to think about.

My particular interest on the day was to think about what might be learnt from hanging about looking at what children and teachers actually did in the gallery.

I ‘ve been thinking about extending the ethnographic work I’ve been doing with the Schools and Teachers team. We’ve speculated whether it would be worthwhile investigating booked school visits to the gallery. The Schools and Teachers team are interested, as am I, in how the gallery is used, and how the resources supplied to teachers are actually deployed on the day.

There are clearly a couple of options for how this could be done:

  • I could hang about with a school, shadowing the students through a visit
  • I could choose a particular room and watch what students do in it over a series of visits. It would be possible to cover three to four rooms in a single day and then repeat this activity several times with several different schools.
The day began with reading a manifesto 

However, both of these options depend on the researcher, me, having some idea of what she is looking for – or at. So the TM schools day was a good opportunity for me to hang about and look.

Emily Pringle, who not only directs the learning teams at Tate but is also a special prof in CRACL, was able to spend the day with me and we talked about what we were seeing, and what this suggested about research observation. I always find that talking things over at the time is a pretty useful thing to do. And as it happens this has been a year when Ive had less of those conversations, so it was a real treat to just hang about with Emily all day.

I also took some photos with my phone just to see what I might ‘get’ using images as part of an ethnographic project. Fortunately, all of the schools and parents had given permission for the children to be filmed: those who’d refused were wearing big yellow dots on their clothes so that the two film crews working on the day would know not to include them in any filming. I avoided the dots too.

Emily and I concluded that some of the questions that it seems possible to ask and answer simply through observation/listening in the gallery are:

  • What works in the collection are the students drawn to? Do they read the labels and at what point? Do they talk to each other about the works? Do they talk in front of the work or elsewhere? What do they say?
  • How many students do the activity that is on offer? Who doesn’t? What do they do instead? What level of sustained activity is there (may need individual children to be selected)? What could they do in the activity? What do they do? What resources do they seem to be using – are they bringing in ideas from school or outside, and if so what? Are they working individually or together? Do they talk to each other? How often? About what? Are they asking questions or offering interpretations?
  • How “school-like”is the activity and/or the responses?
  • What is the teacher doing? Are they using supplied resources or have they set their own activity? If so what? What kind of introductions do they make to the activities? What scaffolding do they provide? Modelling?  When do they intervene and about what?
  • How comfortable are the children in the building? Do they move around freely? How much of this seems to be about learning gallery behaviour as opposed to engaging with the works and activities?
  • Are the students taking photos? Of what? Are they sharing the photos, talking about them with each other face to face or with others elsewhere?
The usual rules about behaviour were stretched. But who could resist going under the spider?

There is no doubt that some judicious questioning could also be helpful. I did a little bit of this just to see whether the students would be comfortable talking to me. However it was such an unusual day, with so many adults about, that this wasn’t really a good test.

It does certainly seem possible to find out, through a very quick chat, what kind of preparation has been done at school and what will happen after . This could be one line of casual questioning. There could also be a bit of informal chat  about whether the students had been to TM before, other galleries etc. And certainly a bit of conversation about what the students make of some of the activities and works. We did notice that it was the teachers who were likely to strike up a conversation with us. But the real and most important issue is how much this research questioning and chat would cut into the gallery experience and disrupt the integrity of the visit.

This initial foray is certainly something to talk further about as part of the process of deciding what and where to continue the research in the gallery. And I’m looking forward to that, as well as going back to explore the new hang and the new works by myself.



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