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Friday, 23 November 2012

Arts and Science in Education: Talk Science Seminar at London Science Museum

I was invited by the Science Museum to give a talk on my arts-science crossover projects to a selection of scientists, museum educators and teachers. Well I gave my talk yesterday at the Talk Science seminar, and thought I'd give you a flavour of it here... 


I’m a fine artist, primarily a painter, and I’m also an arts educator working with schools, communities and running corporate training for businesses such as Confused.com.  

My interest in science has grown from my painting practice where I became fascinated by working with transparent glazes. Over the years this evolved into experimenting with resins, and this year, I received an Arts Council grant to run a science-art crossover project to explore the potential of industrial resins as painting materials. This culminated when I found a industrial polymer chemist willing to assist me; he would come to my studio and I would learn the procedural rules from him, and then proceed to ignore them as I was keen to explore artistic potential discovered through accidents.

Frequently my experiments would fail dismally, but at last I was able to create a body of work to exhibit at Llantarnam Grange. This exhibition received the highest number of visitors at the venue for 5 years, proving just how popular such science-art collaborative projects are. Plus I participated in a live internet discussion with the polymer chemist, live radio and gave a number of talks about the work. The whole project opened my eyes to the potential of science within arts and made me see how effective the arts are to opening the door to science access for all.

So this is one of the reasons why I began to look at science through my arts education workshops.

I'm going to give you an example of one such project working with National Museum Wales, Cardiff. The project was called 'Just Bling?'; the brief was to design a workshop programme to introduce participants to the museum and it's collections, and to the theme of 'bling'. What is 'bling'? Is everything in the musem 'bling'? Why? Participants would then be asked to create their own visual response for exhibition at the end of the project.

Participating groups were young people aged from 10-16, mostly from ethnic minority backgrounds, and young Muslim mothers.

My initial challenge was to get participants comfortable with the idea of visiting the museum, engaging with the collections, and spending time within the museum environment. To facilitate this I organised a series of tours around various collections run by expert museum staff.

The collections I selected for each group to look at contained common ideas in order to guide the group’s making activities in a rough direction. Although the making was child/participant-led, I was keen to encourage an overall theme to make the project and final exhibition cohesive. So for the first tour I arranged for a visit to the Natural History collection to look at beetles and insects, and learn about their protective colourful shells, and also the colours and camouflage of sea-life. This also included a specimen- handling session. The same group’s second tour was around the Tudor Portrait collection, specifically looking at the costumes worn, their symbolism and meaning, and linking these back to what we had already seen in the natural world (protection, camouflage, attraction, warning, status).
Following each tour I held a short taster session within the museum where participants could try their hand at learning an art/craft skill linked to what they had seen in the museum that day. These were aimed at encouraging the participants to attend further sessions, and also teaching them a technique which they could use later on in the project.
Creative making sessions took place in both the museum and community venues. My role was not to direct the participants in what to make, but rather to provide the practical skills and knowledge to help them turn their ideas and sketches into reality. And they made some amazing work!
 
The young people ended up creating a collection of wearable art pieces inspired by their Natural History and Tudor Portraits tours. This included Tudor-style armour camouflaged to look like a beetle’s shell, wire and netting butterfly wings, and a skirt made from netting (similar to a Tudor neck ruff), shaped like a jellyfish, and covered with ‘eye’ spots such as fish and insects use to scare off predators.
The outcome of the project was that all artefacts made were exhibited in the National Museum alongside the pieces from the museum collections which had provided the inspiration, and the participants own written interpretation of the project.
We held an exhibition opening party for the community groups, and the show was also open to the public, providing the participants with validation for their work.
Feedback was excellent, with many participants continuing to visit the museum long after the project had finished. This includes those who had never set foot inside the museum prior to 'Just Bling?', so the goal of using the arts to widen museum access was more than achieved.