At the Tate Gallery: special trail for children of all ages

The contrast couldn't have been sharper if it had been arranged that way. I arrived at the front door of the Tate Gallery for an appointment with one of the school-group lecturers, Patricia Adams, at the same time as two such groups.

One of the groups (all in uniform) lined up immediately as it got out of its bus, and both the boys and the girls (aged about 14 to 16) were clutching notebooks. It was clear from their chatter that they had been briefed about what they were to see and hear on this field trip.

The other busload did not know where to go, and while their school representative went in to make inquiries on how they should proceed to see the special exhibit of works by the Spanish surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, they milled around on the steps. These youngsters were also in uniform, both boys and girls, and 14 to 16 years old.

I caught up with the first students as they sat on stools in front of "Flatford Mill," a painting by John Constable, who, as the school lecturer explained, painted it early in his career -- about 1816.

The lecture was excellent, and the prepared children were fully attentive. She asked them if they could tell, by the way the light was in the picture, about what time of day it was.

We progressed then to a discussion of painting technique and she drew our attention to the cloud formations.

From where we were sitting we could see other Constable paintings. She drew our attention to one entitled "Hardleigh Castle," pointing out the very dark and brooding nature of the clouds. This, she explained, was painted in 1828, just after Constable's wife had passed on.

When Mrs. Adams talked with me about the school lectures, she explained that the aim is to have the children prepared before-hand, for the schools to contact the education division of the Tate in advance, and for the lecturer to work as closely as possible with the teacher so that the material discussed during the hour is in line with the students' understanding.

But the school group thrust into the Dali exhibit was not left completely on its own; with the admission fee to this exhibit came a slick brochure providing information and asking questions that would help the students understand even a little about this visionary and exciting artist.

For example, a painting done in 1936, "Forgotten Horizon." The Tate education staff asks: "Notice that the work is pale in color except for one dark shape. Where is the shape and what do you think it represents?" And then another: "Do you think the painting has a feeling of loneliness? If so, explain."

A young man who was seated beside me after emerging from this gallery said he was tempted to answer "no" to that last question, and then he wouldn't have to do any explaining. But he was then eager to talk with his chums about what they had all seen, what it meant and didn't mean, and whether their art teacher would let them do such "weird" things and call it "art."

While I was assured that the Tate would do what it could for the individual scholar who wanted some help to carry out an independent project, it is not really set up to deal with these as much as with school groups of 40 to 50 in a party.

And I gather it prefers that it not just be an outing to see pictures, but a follow-up of some specific teaching. That is, perhaps the party might be made up of students who had all been working for a term on watercolor themselves. If the Take knew in advance, the lecturer would prepare a talk focusing on this technique, and if need be, the lecturer would do specific research to be able to give the students some information in considerable depth.

For their part, the Tate's study material consistently calls for noticing specific details, for learning how to see with more accuracy and more intent.

For example, there is a booklet dealing with body language, with the staff noting: "Artists are experts at knowing how people can express themselves without speaking but just using their limbs, bodies, and faces."

Picasso, "Three Dancers," Gallery 24:

"What kind of dance are they doing? Is it stately or wild?

"Describe the music you think they might be dancing to.

"How many faces can you see?

"Where are the dancers? Are they outside or inside?"

And so on. Visitors to London bringing their children to the Tate Gallery, or school-children themselves, may ask for booklets and papers that will help them learn more as they visit the museum. These are called the "Children's Trail," and are more than a little fun to follow for students of every age.

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