Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education
For years, FWMoA’s Early Learning Center (ELC) has provided a welcoming space for visiting families and preschool groups to engage in hands-on activities and “let loose” a little. Museums can be daunting places to visit with young children but the bright colors, drawing supplies, and building blocks housed in the ELC worked to combat this; providing families with a place to unwind. It also serves as a hub and orientation space for school field trips. It’s a hard-working room that’s been in need of some TLC, and, although it was already beloved by our visitors, we thought it could do all of its jobs just a little better while also inspiring deeper experiences throughout the rest of the museum. The newly revamped John S. and James L. Knight Learning Center reopened a few weeks ago after over a year of planning.
So what went into planning the new space? First, a careful consideration of our audience and their needs. Because the last revamp targeted early learners, we started there, asking families at our annual Pre-K Family Fest what they liked about the space and what could be improved upon. Most of the people I talked to were just happy that the room exists—anything else was icing on the cake. They liked the selection of builders and blocks, the drawing wall, and the chance to create and explore together with their children. Some respondents indicated that more would be welcome: more art, more information, more kinds of art supplies, more learning activities, more (and more diverse) books…in short, and more substance. Educators we talked to echoed that sentiment.
We also, of course, had to make sure that the room remained flexible enough to do all of its jobs. There needs to be open space and a way to show a presentation for school group orientations. Pre-K classes are some of our most frequent visitors; so we wanted to make sure that the revamped Learning Center, although we’ve officially dropped the “early” from the name, is still friendly to that age group. However, it should also grow with them—if they come back in a few years (or hopefully sooner) will it still be engaging? Will it also invite their parents or caregivers to create and learn?
Next, I wanted to know if there were any existing guidelines on creating spaces like these in a museum environment. What research is out there? I found two main sources of information, linked below. These studies and transcripts of presentations reported that interactive spaces help parents feel, overall, more positive about and comfortable in art museums and more confident in facilitating art experiences for their children. That told me that we can help parents along the way by providing some guidelines and prompts, both for art-making and for viewing art with their children. The parents surveyed felt that interactive spaces benefit their children most in terms of enhancing both their art-making skills and their attitudes toward art and art museums. So, more materials for creating artwork and more opportunities to interact with works from the collection in a welcoming space—these are relatively small changes, but offering more tangible connections with actual works of art so families and students who visit can build transferable skills seemed key. I also looked to other institutions for less “scientific” information than the studies. Whenever I’ve visited other museums over the past few years, I’ve been the odd childless adult roaming their learning centers for ideas. I discovered approaches and room dimensions as varied as the museums themselves.
The renovation was also a chance to refocus: at its core, an art museum is a place to experience works of art in person, even in the parts of the building designed for its youngest visitors. With that in mind, we have actually been making small additions to the Early Learning Center for the past year or so, starting with last year’s Medieval to Metal exhibition in the galleries when we brought one of the playable electric guitars into the ELC, along with two guitar-inspired artworks and easy-to-read text to help guide looking. Since then, the walls leading out to the rest of the museum have become a transitional space that connects to a current exhibition, so each time you visit, you might see something different, just like in the rest of our galleries. The entryway also provides a space to feature artwork from students in the local community. Right now, in conjunction with Full Spectrum, Op art by fifth graders from J.E. Ober Elementary in Garrett hangs opposite a Julian Stanczak print from the FWMoA collection. How exciting would it be as a young artist to see your drawing alongside a work that inspired it? The rest of the room is full of artwork, too. Some even hangs from the ceiling; we installed two of Sayaka Ganz’s reclaimed plastic jellyfish sculptures, Mysteries, to lend a soothing ambiance to the READ area. With the lack of empty wall space, it was important to offset all that color with paint in a soothing shade of gray.
What else will you find in the new Learning Center? In some ways it feels much the same. We’ve kept the layout of stations, opportunities for self-directed block play and art-making abound, and you can still draw on the wall. However, there is more “stuff” than ever in each station; the blocks, builders, and art-making offer some direction for those who want it; and the drawing wall is magnetic with colorful shapes to incorporate in your designs. There are also a few extra-special additions like a color-mixing light table and a replica of a sculpture from the collection. Since the space re-opened I’ve cleaned lots of enthusiastic tempera-paint-stick scribble off the table, heard exclamations of “They got cool toys!”, and had to pry first graders away from the liquid floor tiles to go on their museum tour. I look forward to seeing how it gets used in the future!
This renovation was made possible by major support from the PNC Foundation, the Ian and Mimi Rolland Family Foundation, the Lupke Family Foundation, the 3 Rivers Federal Credit Union Foundation, and the Journal Gazette Foundation. Major supporters of Children’s Education at FWMoA are the Wells Fargo Foundation, the Edward D. and Ione Auer Foundation, and the Lincoln Financial Foundation.
1. From Content to Play: Family-Oriented Interactive Spaces in Art and History Museums [link: http://www.getty.edu/education/symposium/], a 2005 symposium at the J.Paul Getty Museum
2. Family Learning in Interactive Galleries [link: http://www.familiesinartmuseums.org/], a 2011 study conducted by three museums: the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville