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El Greco in Velcro?

Infants at an art exhibition? Yes, it's possible, even pleasurable. Victoria Neumark reports.

It can be hell taking young children to art galleries. First off, they want to touch everything, then they make frightfully loud comments about other visitors - "Mummy, why is that lady so fat? She's got a baby in her tummy, hasn't she, Mummy?" And, of course, they simply don't have the art-historical perspective to enable them to make sense of Mantegna's monumentality or Ingres' way with a nude ("Rude showing your bottom," they point out severely, having only just learnt this themselves.) Children drag their parents over to a mordant El Greco Crucifixion and ask "Why is that man making such silly faces?" or stare at an explicit Picasso and exclaim "Is that lady looking at her fanny?" Hell, then, if you go caring what people think. But it can be a wonderful experience if the child shows enjoyment. If infants like something, they really like it and are generous and unstinting in their praise. "It jumps at you," remarked a child of Van Gogh's famous chair.

The Walsall Museum and Art Gallery has spent the past three years developing an exhibition which is designed to have just this kind of effect on three to five-year-olds. The project, called Start, is designed to break down some of the traditional prejudices about visual arts and to show that a gallery is not just the sole preserve of the art historian or the upper middle classes.

The exhibition team charged with bringing art to the youngest generation has attempted to create a multi-sensory experience, where children can engage with original works of art at the same time as a variety of other related hands-on activities, with opportunities to experiment with their own work.

The focus of Walsall's museum is the Garman-Ryan Collection, a rich assortment of art and antiquities collected by Kathleen Garman, widow of sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and family friend, artist Sally Ryan. It includes such prizes as Van Gogh's drawing of Sorrow, paintings by Modigliani, Monet and Degas as well as many works by Epstein and his circle, and antiquities from all over the world.

Following Lady Epstein's original classification for her collection, Start is divided up into areas on People, Flowers, Animals, Inside and Outside, and the Story of Frisky the Dog (Frisky was the Epstein family dog, immortalised in a bronze sculpture). Other corners are used for Make Your Own Art and comments.

In the Flowers section, Connie Tooze, age three, is sticking coloured tissue paper on to a flower-pot drawing. This is her second visit and she likes the flowers best, though she also enjoyed drawing herself in front of the mirror. Her mother, Emily Tooze, an infant teacher, is equally enthusiastic. "She's talked about it so much," she says.

Touch-draw computer screens where images in the collection can be modified, paper, crayons and a box of wooden blocks offer the children means of self-expression, while two large picture frames with Velcro canvases allow Connie and her sister Beth to experiment in sticking tapestry flowers in different positions.

Some of the museum's most-loved images have been pressed into service. In the People section bronze heads by Epstein and Ryan have been coated with resin to allow young hands to explore their hotcold, hardsoft properties. Delicate images of people and animals from cultures long ago and far away - Egypt, the Arctic Circle, New Zealand - are housed in a sturdy perspex tower designed to be clambered over. Epstein's drawing of his scowling young daughter Kitty and Van Gogh's Sorrow are double-glazed so that young faces musing on the depiction of emotion can be pressed right up.

As well as a theme, each section offers an examination of technique and seeing work by children of their own age framed on the wall links their own creativity with "real" art.

In an adjoining room work by Amanda Long and Jo Roberts offers a refreshing coda. These two artists have been working in nursery schools in Walsall and also in the museum. Intricate wrappings and painted blocks - all can be touched - attract, but children have already added their comments. Wrapping and hanging lace, wool, string, paper, ribbon and cloth on to a frame, they have made a joyful sculpture - a festive Start to visiting art.

o Walsall Museum and Art Gallery, Lichfield Street, Walsall. Tel: 01922-653116. Exhibition runs until July 16

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