Culture Babies

Working alongside Kids in Museums, Manchester Art Gallery hosted a national 'Culture Babies conference' today, focusing on the importance of creatively engaging young children (aged 0-2 years) and their adults in cultural institutions.

After having run Mini Art Club for a good three years at the gallery, we had reflected on the need to engage 0-2 year olds as there was a lack of activities available specifically for parents with very young children. Baby Art Club has since been launched and is proving to be more popular than ever! 

As part of the Culture Babies conference today, I delivered a taster session in the studio. As always, our starting point comes from identifying suitable artworks to respond to in the gallery, in this case the 17th Century gallery on the first floor. A key artwork in the current display is the painting 'Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his Wife' by John Souch (see link below for an image). The subject matter in this artwork is rather dark and macabre. However, the gallery also exhibits other paintings which depict family life in the 17th Century through formal portraiture.

It is an interesting exercise to respond to artworks that we may overlook or deem to be unsuitable or inappropriate for certain groups and then try to tease out interesting thoughts, ideas and responses.

I thought it would be useful to begin to pull out key themes and imagery from the artworks and, having spent some time looking, began to notice the intricate, lacy details on the clothing of the characters in the painting. The heavy contrast between dark and light  / black and white was also apparent. Black and white became the sensory theme for our sensory installation downstairs and this proved to be a theme that could be explored, pulled apart and questioned downstairs.

Black and white materials were laid out and contrasted in the studio environment downstairs, to create a strong visual contrast aimed specifically at babies' eyes. We also wanted to question the stereotypical understanding of the symbolism of black and white. Black is not often associated with young children. In Western cultures, white is often viewed positively as something which symbolises purity, light, life and innocence. In opposition, black is often associated with death, shadows, darkness and even the occult. 

We somehow wanted to invert this so that black could be cast in a positive light and could even be portrayed as something that had the quality of something light, whereas white became heavy. Furthermore, we wanted to explore ways of interpreting the sensory qualities of black and white, i.e. what would black sound / feel / taste like, as opposed to white?

A small group of babies and mums entered the space and were invited to explore a variety of materials and objects with all the senses, i.e. heavy white balloons and cobbles, vs. floating black balloons, white and black velvet, lace, flowers, vegetables and even a black and white keyboard. Here we had attempted to create our very own black and white 17th Century still life installation.

While the session continued, groups of conference delegates were invited to visit the space, make observations and ask questions.  

Most of the mums hadn't attended Baby Art Club before and many were pleasantly surprised by the taster session. In particular, one mum commented on how she thought it was "refreshing" to attend a session that wasn't adult-led, but rather allowed space and time for her to explore and play together with her baby.  

It was a lovely session to run, even if it took us all morning to set up the installation! Many thanks to Andrew Moseley, Alex Thorp and Jess Wild for all their help.